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Gov't never examined employers whose foreign trainees fled due to low pay: official

Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita answers a question about immigration law revisions during a House of Councillors Judicial Affairs Committee hearing at the Diet in Tokyo on Dec. 4, 2018 (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- A top immigration official has told the Diet that the Justice Ministry did not investigate employers of foreign technical trainees interviewed by immigration officials following their disappearance from workplaces due to low pay.

The revelation is yet another indication of the government's sloppy preparations to accept more foreign workers to ease Japan's acute labor shortage.

Masaki Wada, director-general of the ministry's Immigration Bureau, told the House of Councillors Committee on Judicial Affairs that the officials doing the interviews "wrote down what the trainees told them, and did not examine (their employers)."

The upper house panel is discussing a government-sponsored Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act revision bill to create new residency statuses for additional foreign workers, including former foreign trainees. The opposition is attacking the bill as lacking substance and the government for rushing the revisions without preparing proper protections for foreign workers. Opposition lawmakers have been focusing on the notorious trainee program during Diet deliberations to highlight the government's current failure to treat foreigners properly.

An opposition analysis of the trainee interviews in 2017 showed that two-thirds of the 2,870 trainees who fled their workplaces were being paid less than minimum wage. A government explanation earlier said only 22 of the total, or 0.8 percent, specifically said they had left their employers because the pay was below the minimum wage.

Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita told the panel that he takes the opposition finding "seriously," adding that he has instructed immigration officials to investigate the employers of those trainees. The minister nevertheless questioned the validity of the opposition analysis, saying that the interview results on which the wage calculations were made "do not necessarily mean that they (the trainees) received the stated pay and worked for the stated hours every month."

Ministry officials also tried to back up the minister's argument, but did not outright deny the opposition's accusations about low pay as the ministry had not corroborated the interview results with the employers. "It cannot be immediately confirmed that the pay was below the minimum wage," one official told the judicial panel.

Yamashita also told the panel that his ministry, the lead agency handling issues related to foreign workers, "will make sure to protect the human rights" of foreign laborers, including former technical trainees. However, opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Yoshifu Arita accused the government over the failure to probe the employers, saying, "The premise for the bill is now lost. No new (immigration) system is possible without a thorough review of the current situation."

The Technical Intern Trainee Program was introduced in 1993 under the name of transferring Japan's technical expertise to developing countries, but has been lambasted as a cover to secure cheap labor under tough conditions.

Meanwhile, Yamashita explained that the ministry will issue a directive, after the passage of the bill into law, banning employers from forcing Japanese employees to resign and replacing them with foreign workers. He added that the ministry will require companies hiring foreign workers to report on their status, and will also check if foreigners are receiving pay equivalent to that of Japanese workers.

Yet opposition lawmakers questioned the effectiveness of such measures. "Just reviewing documents will not show you the reality," said Sohei Nihi of the Japanese Communist Party.

(Japanese original by Jun Aoki, Political News Department)

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