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Foreign interns under gov't-backed program struggle with hefty fees from home countries

Former Vietnamese intern Tran Van Ha is seen in Kobe on Oct. 26, 2017. (Mainichi)

Young foreigners coming to Japan as trainees under the government-sponsored foreign intern training program face financial burdens when they come to the country as organizations in their home countries in charge of sending the workers charge them more than they can afford in many cases. While a new law came into force on Nov. 1 to improve the program, Japan has practically no choice but to leave the matter of the expensive fees to the home countries of the interns.

In November last year, Tran Van Ha, a 25-year-old former intern from Vietnam, cried and screamed at Okayama Airport when she was brought there by the staff of a Japanese organization accepting foreign interns.

"I am not going back," Tran thought to herself. She was told that she would be going to a new workplace, but was then suddenly told to go back to her country. After protesting in Vietnamese, Chinese and broken Japanese, Tran managed to escape from the airport.

There was a reason she could not go back -- she borrowed a total of some 1 million yen from a bank and overcharging lender back home to pay the dispatch group in charge of sending workers to Japan for the processing fees (about 750,000 yen) and security deposit (about 250,000 yen), but because of her low pay in Japan, she had been falling behind in her payments.

Four months before the airport incident, Tran was taken in by a Hiroshima-based canteen operator and was dispatched to work in a cafeteria at a public office in Osaka Prefecture. She was not given much to do, however, and her monthly pay was roughly 15,000 yen after tax, which was worse than working at a local restaurant in her home country.

She was then told to go on to a one-day business trip on short notice, and ended up spending two months in Nagasaki Prefecture working at a high school dorm to prepare breakfast for the students. She was made to commute from a business hotel to her work place, and her take-home pay was around 60,000 yen a month after expenses were deducted from her salary of more than 100,000 yen.

Hailing from the city of Ha Long, Tran is a single mother and left her 7-year-old son at her parents' home to work in Japan to make money for tuition for her son. Her ailing father, a former coal miner, cannot work, and her mother, who works part time at a local market, pays for her son's tuition.

Overwhelmed by anxiety about her debt, she called the group accepting foreign interns and a support organization for the host company to demand improved working conditions. But right after she made those calls she was almost sent back home.

"I sought help. Why did they try to make me return to my country?" Tran laments. "They shouldn't take us interns lightly."

In recent years, Chinese workers make up less of the foreign interns and an increasing number of workers from Vietnam and Myanmar are coming to Japan for the program. A Myanmar woman in her 30s who was working as an intern at a sewing factory in the Shikoku region vanished from her work after being paid only 400 yen an hour for her overtime and she was also sexually harassed at work. Now her family back home is being asked to compensate some 1 million yen, including a security deposit, from the dispatch group.

After issues surrounding the controversial foreign intern program such as unpaid wages came to the surface, the law to improve the program recently came into force. However, foreign interns who usually become heavily in debt when they come to Japan do not have the freedom to change their work place once they are taken in by a company.

Another Vietnamese intern working in western Japan has been made to accompany a senior official of an organization accepting foreign trainees at business dinners. She also paid about 1 million yen upon coming to Japan and says she could not say no to the official in fear of losing her job.

In the meantime, it is hard to regulate the expenses the foreign trainees have to pay even under the new law. While it is now required to report how much they paid their dispatch organizations in their home countries to come to Japan, there are no standards to judge whether the price is too high. The security deposit has been banned since 2010, but in many cases the dispatch groups still collect the deposit money. Japan has no choice but to leave the matter to the home countries of the trainees when it comes to the fees these workers are made to pay.

Tran settled her case with her host company with help from supporters after they agreed that she would receive additional pay of 350,000 yen. However, she has no prospects of paying back the money she borrowed when coming to Japan.

"I need to work more in Japan," Tran says, but her visa has been switched to a short-term stay status under which she cannot get employment. The clock is ticking for her to leave the country.

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