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67% of missing foreign trainees worked below minimum wage: opposition parties

Opposition lawmakers field questions from reporters as they show hand-copied questionnaires of interviews conducted by the Justice Ministry of foreign trainees who went missing from their workplaces, on Dec. 3, 2018, at the Diet building. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Two-thirds of foreign technical trainees who went missing from their workplaces said they were paid below the minimum wage, according to opposition parties' analysis of trainees' interview records. The interviews used in the study were conducted last year by the Ministry of Justice.

According to the opposition bloc, 1,939 of the 2,870 trainees who came to Japan through the Technical Intern Training Program had been paid less than an hourly wage of 714 yen, or about U.S. $6.29 at the current exchange rate -- the equivalent of the minimum wage in the southern Japanese prefectures of Okinawa and Miyazaki in 2016. The analysis also revealed that about 10 percent of the trainees, or 292, worked 80 hours or more of overtime per month. The figure is beyond the limit said to trigger "karoshi," or death from overwork.

The opposition has been analyzing the data in connection with ongoing Diet deliberations on a government-sponsored bill to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act. The aim of the bill is to allow more foreign workers into Japan in a bid to alleviate the nation's labor shortage. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to pass the package into law in the current extraordinary session of the national legislature before it goes into recess on Dec. 10, and institute the changes in April next year. The opposition is against the bill, which it characterizes as lacking in substance, and is critical of the unusual speed with which it is being pushed through the legislature.

The Technical Intern Training Program, introduced as a means for technological transfer from Japan to developing countries, has been accused as a cover to obtain cheap labor, and allowing abusive labor practices to be implemented against foreign trainees.

The 2017 interviews were conducted by immigration officers of foreign trainees who were brought into custody of immigration authorities after disappearing from their workplaces. Among the questions they were asked were their nationality, sex, motivation for their disappearance, monthly pay and work hours.

The opposition's statement that some 67 percent of trainees said they worked under the minimum wage provides a sharp contrast to an earlier Justice Ministry analysis. According to the government data, 1,929, or 67.2 percent of the 2,870 interviewed, cited "low payment" as their motivation for fleeing. Of this figure, 144, or 5 percent, said they were paid "less than the amount set in the contract," while 22, or 0.8 percent, said their salaries were "less than the minimum wage." Monthly salaries were 100,000 yen or less for 1,627, or 56.7 percent of those interviewed, and between 100,000 yen and 150,000 yen for 1,037, or 36.1 percent of interviewees.

Citing this data, the Justice Ministry had explained to the ruling and opposition blocs that just 0.8 percent escaped from their workplaces because they were paid less than the minimum wage. However, the opposition made its calculations for hourly pay based on monthly pay data. As a result, the opposition found that the interviewed foreign trainees' monthly average salary was 108,000 yen, with 32,000 yen deducted for electricity and other expenses.

Yoshifu Arita of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan told a press conference on Dec. 3 inside the National Diet that the opposition's analysis "revealed that what the Justice Ministry has said was false." He said that now "the basis for Diet deliberations is lost," adding that his party will focus on this issue in the House of Councillors' Judicial Affairs Committee deliberations.

The Ministry of Justice had explained in a document presented to the ruling and opposition camps that the largest portion of trainees, or 86.9 percent, disappeared from their workplaces because they were "seeking higher pay." But raw data of the interviews showed that "seeking higher pay" was not an option made available to interviewees as a possible answer for why they had escaped. Mistakes were found in the aggregated data as well, and the ministry made corrections on Nov. 16. The opposition, however, demanded that all interview data be revealed. The ministry complied, but blacked out certain portions citing privacy concerns and prohibited the opposition from photocopying or taking the documents out of a designated room.

(Japanese original by Takeshi Wada, City News Department)

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