TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A government survey of 5,218 trainees on the state-sponsored technical internship program who went missing from work revealed Friday that 759 had been unjustly treated by employers, including being paid less than the minimum wage.
The ministry also said 171 interns died in Japan in six years from 2012, 28 of them due to accidents during their training and 17 by suicide.
The figures highlight the harsh working conditions of foreign trainees ahead of the launch next week of Japan's new visa program that will bring in more blue-collar workers from abroad.
The training program introduced in 1993 is aimed at transferring skills to developing countries, but the scheme has been criticized at home and abroad as a cover for importing low-cost labor. Suffering from a serious labor shortage due to its aging population, Japan will open up to more foreign workers from Monday.
The number of foreign trainees who disappeared from work is on the rise and is far bigger than the number surveyed by the Justice Ministry, with 9,052 reported missing in 2018 alone. The 5,218 surveyed by immigration control officers were those tracked down by the authorities and interviewed between January 2017 and September 2018.
As of late December 2018, there were 328,360 such foreign interns in Japan, according to the survey.
Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita told a press conference the government will "make efforts to operate the internship program appropriately."
Ministry officials admitted their response to problems faced by the trainees had been insufficient and pledged to boost support and protection for interns and supervision of their employers.
The probe also covered 4,280 employers of trainees, but 383 of them could not be reached, with some refusing to cooperate and others going bankrupt.
Of the 759 trainees whose unjust treatment caused them to abscond, 58 were believed to have been paid less than the minimum wage, 69 were underpaid, 92 had excessive deductions from their wages to cover food and other expenses, 195 were not paid for overtime, and 231 worked without a management-labor pact that must be concluded for overtime work or in conditions violating that agreement.
Some of the interns were subjected to more than one example of such treatment, according to the survey.
Of the 171 deaths, 53 were due to accidents unrelated to the interns' works, 59 by disease and nine by murder or assault resulting in death, the survey showed.
Among those dying of illness, three were suspected to have been forced to work in violation of the management-labor agreement on overtime work and one of the 17 who killed themselves was believed to have had only four holidays in three and a half months.
As for specific examples, the ministry said a trainee at a sewing factory only received 60,000 yen ($540) monthly for the last seven months before running away and had not been given any extra pay despite an average 60 hours a month of overtime.
Another trainee engaged in farming was barred from going out at night and cellphone use in the dormitory was restricted, while employers of an intern for a fabric weaving machine operator confiscated the trainee's passport and resident card, the ministry said.
The ministry has reported cases of suspected law violations to labor authorities.
The latest survey was conducted after faults were found last November in an earlier probe into foreign trainees who quit their jobs.
The earlier survey wrongfully stated that 87 percent of the respondents left "in pursuit of better pay" when in fact 67 percent of them replied they had left due to "low wages."