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Shrinking Japan: Woes of technical trainees spur response from some firms

Sushma Sigdel, second from right, and other foreigner technical interns enjoy a meal together in the women's dormitory of Sankyo MFG Co. Ltd. in the city of Higashiosaka on Oct. 9, 2018. (Mainichi/Ryoichi Mochizuki)

GIFU PREFECTURE/HIGASHIOSAKA, Osaka -- "I can't hold anything with my dominant hand any more. I can't imagine the future," lamented 26-year-old technical trainee Huang Shihu. The Chinese national's eyes grew misty as he stared at his right hand.

Unable to find work in China, Huang came to Japan as a technical trainee in December 2015, joining a company in central Japan that produced cardboard boxes. But while doing cardboard pasting work in July 2016, his right hand got caught in a machine, and was severely injured.

The trainee was pressured to leave the company, but he refused. The company then threatened to "call the police" on him.

If Huang returned home, the 600,000 yen loan he had taken out to travel to Japan would go to waste. He took his worries to a shelter operated by a labor union in Gifu Prefecture. With the help of the union, he got his injury recognized as a workplace accident, and underwent surgery, but even now, he can't bend the four fingers besides his thumb on his right hand.

"I'm supposed to be a 'technical trainee,' but I wasn't given the chance to study and I couldn't even earn any money," he says with a frustrated expression.

Japan's Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) started in 1993 as a way to "transfer the nation's technology to developing countries." However, it began to devolve into a method to secure cheap labor, slipping through Japan's national policy of not accepting foreign laborers.

The program has been plagued with problems, from workplace accidents to unfair dismissal, power harassment and the disappearance of interns. In 2018 the U.S. Department of State severely criticized the program in its annual report on human trafficking, saying that cases of forced labor were occurring within the TITP, and that it had "effectively become a guest-worker program."

One former Japanese immigration control worker reflected, "The system was allowed to operate haphazardly, and it ended up bringing shame on the country."

At the same time, there are firms that have started to pay more attention to technical trainees' working conditions.

Sankyo MFG Co. Ltd., a metallic cutting company in the western Japan city of Higashiosaka, is among those firms. Recently at the company's female dormitory in a corner of a residential district of the city, trainees of various nationalities gathered for a midday meal.

"Everyone at work is kind and the work is fun," said 23-year-old Sushma Sigdel, who came to Japan from Nepal 2 1/2 years ago. As she spoke, the other technical trainees around the table smiled.

The company has about 150 employees, of which over 60 percent are foreign nationals hailing from 11 countries. Of these, 34 are technical trainees. They are not hired because they are cheap labor, says company president Terumasa Matsumoto. "It's because they're assertive and are of top caliber. There's no difference between Japanese and foreigners."

To the greatest degree possible, the company has workers from the same country live together. It rented out a three-story apartment as the women's dorm. In 2014, the group opened a Japanese school. In some cases, it has raised money for the academic fees of trainees who return to their home countries.

"We want trainees to return home with money, language skills, and opportunities," Matsumoto says.

Some larger firms are also taking special note of how trainees are treated. Wacoal Holdings Corp., a maker of women's underwear, conducted a survey this year to find out if there were any violations of the human rights of technical trainees in the supply network handling the company's products. It was reasoned that any violations could greatly damage the company's brand image, even if they occurred at a company operating under a manufacturing license.

"In these times, the firm couldn't make do without foreign workers. Companies should step up to match the social situation," a public relations official for the firm said.

Under revisions to Japan's immigration control law being debated in the Diet, technical intern trainees who have completed a three-year training course in 14 industries under consideration would be able to obtain a "special skills" status of residence and become regular workers. The government stresses that it will not make the same mistakes as with the technical trainee system that has been hit with criticism. The key, however, lies in a deeper awareness of human rights among the companies and other parties that are accepting these workers.

--- Trainee program rife with problems

The technical trainee program has been expanded to accept workers in 77 job categories, and as of June this year, the number of technical trainees totaled 285,776. The program has been criticized as having drifted from its purported purpose of making an international contribution, and as having been used to compensate for a worker shortage.

The practice of malicious firms forcing trainees to work for long hours and low pay emerged as a social problem. In November 2017 legislation to improve the system came into force, tightening monitoring of employers. The Organization for Technical Intern Training, a legal entity with regulatory authority, was set up under the joint supervision of the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Health, Labor and Welfare.

However, there has been a succession of cases in which trainees have been treated badly and in which they have fled to find other work. It was reported that in the first half of this year, 4,279 trainees disappeared from their places of employment.

With the lifting of the ban on foreign laborers, "technical trainees may come to fulfill the original aims of the program," one hopeful Justice Ministry official said. However, under planned revisions to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act, technical trainees will be able to apply for a "category 1" residence status for laborers with certain knowledge and experience. It has been pointed out that this would run counter to the aim of the TITP of trainees passing on skills to their own countries.

(Japanese original by Tomohiro Katahira and Jun Kaneko, City News Department)

This is Part 6 of a series.

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