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Japan's livestock thefts and struggling foreign workers: Vietnam interns' reality (Pt. 2)

A picture of a large number of residence cards for foreign residents is seen on the same Facebook group's account used by Vietnamese people in Japan, in this image taken on Nov. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Naomichi Senoo)

A great number of the Vietnamese nationals arrested in relation to large-scale livestock and produce thefts from farms in the northern Kanto region were found to be technical intern trainees who had disappeared from their places of work. In the second part of this in-depth look into the cases and their background, the Mainichi Shimbun asks what kind of conditions these people are living under in Japan.

    The technical intern trainee program began in 1993. As part of Japan's contribution to international society, it allows people from developing countries to stay in Japan for up to five years, and aims to teach them Japanese technological know-how. But with the country suffering a labor shortage, it's not an exaggeration to say the program has actually become a way to support Japan's industries.

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, there were around 410,000 technical intern trainees in Japan as of the end of 2019, some 2.5 times the number just five years earlier. In recent years, there has been a particularly sharp rise in Vietnamese people coming to the country under the program, and in 2019 they made up some 210,000 of all technical intern trainees -- around half of the total.

    Until 2015, Chinese people had made up the largest share, but China's economic advancement and the resultant rise in wage levels have weakened the merits of coming to work in Japan. Conversely, the average monthly salary in Vietnam is only around 30,000 yen (about $288), and working even the lowest paid jobs in Japan represents potential earnings several times the average Vietnamese monthly wage.

    Amid a stall in Chinese technical intern trainees, Vietnamese workers have seen greater rates of acceptance and become welcomed by companies. One person who works supporting foreign nationals in Japan even told the Mainichi Shimbun that there is a perception among firms that Vietnamese people are "obedient and diligent."

    But cases of Vietnamese nationals disappearing from their posts have also risen. Figures from the Immigration Services Agency of Japan show that in 2019, 8,796 technical intern trainees disappeared from their places of work, a rise of 1.8 times the figure in 2014. Of them, 6,105 people, some 70%, were Vietnamese. These figures are six times the number of Vietnamese people who disappeared in 2014, and represents some 3% of all Vietnamese technical intern trainees working in 2019.

    What almost all of the disappeared technical intern trainees have in common is the gap between their preconceptions about living in Japan and the reality they faced once they came here.

    Many Vietnamese technical intern trainees come from poor agrarian villages. They move to Japan hoping to make their families' lives a little easier, and pay huge amounts in fees to firms that will dispatch them to this country. Advisories from the Vietnamese government say that the cost for three years must be no more than $3,600 -- about 380,000 yen -- but the fees are padded due to intervention by unscrupulous agents and other actors. As a result, there are countless cases of Vietnamese nationals coming to Japan while shouldering debts of around 1 million yen (about $9,585).

    With wages after tax coming to a little over 100,000 yen (about $960), and costs from rent, other living expenses and money they send home, many Vietnamese technical intern trainees have almost no funds they can spend freely.

    Yoshihisa Saito, an associate professor at Kobe University's graduate school and an expert in Vietnamese labor law, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "When it comes to the reality of living in Japan compared to what they'd heard before coming here -- like hearing they'd be able to earn money but not being able to -- it's not just a case of not being able to stand it; their finances can get in a real mess as they can't repay their debts. Strapped for cash, they disappear from their jobs, and find illegal forms of employment that will help them make even a little bit more."

    A message that appears to be recruiting people on a social media account used by Vietnamese people in Japan is seen in this image taken on Nov. 19, 2020. (Mainichi/Naomichi Senoo)

    Harsh working environments are another reason that some people disappear from their placements. Thich Tam Tri, 42, who works supporting Vietnamese nationals in her capacity as the head of a Buddhist group to help them, said, "There are good companies among those accepting them as workers, but some of the businesses are offering only low wages, and allowing physical violence and verbal abuse to take place freely. They treat people like objects."

    But the technical intern trainee program does not recognize in principle the workers' right to find new employment. Even if there are issues in workplaces, it can be difficult to do anything to change them.

    The coronavirus crisis has dealt another blow. One of the 13 Vietnamese nationals arrested by Gunma Prefectural Police on suspicion of overstaying their visas and other charges in contravention of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act had worked in a welding plant from 2018 to April 2020. The suspect reportedly told police, "Because of the coronavirus I had less work, and I lost my job."

    Many technical intern trainees don't have sufficient Japanese language skills, and they struggle to communicate with their Japanese co-workers or even go to consultation services provided by governments. For some it can then become the case that disappearing from their places of work seems a viable last resort.

    Saito describes the system as ill-prepared to take on the workers, saying, "Before technical intern trainees come to Japan, they should be asked to have enough language skills to access governmental services, and a system to allow them access to support consultation services via social media should be established."

    Almost all the Vietnamese technical intern trainees who do leave their jobs only have their compatriots in Japan to rely on. They use social media to find each other. There are cases not just of people finding places to live through the platforms, but even illegal sources of employment.

    One Facebook group with a name that translates to "soldier" in Vietnamese lists numerous suspicious offers, including, "Work in Saitama: 28 hours a week," and, "I can give you a room. 38,000 yen (about $365) a month. Six months free."

    Sales of fake residency cards for foreign nationals needed to obtain work illegally are also rampant on social media. According to the nonprofit organization "the association to protect young Asian people," which is based in Kumagaya, Saitama Prefecture, and engages in consultations and support for Vietnamese technical intern trainees looking for work, it's easy to obtain fake residency certification. The process reportedly involves just sending ID photos to individuals on Facebook offering fake residency cards, who then send back the forged items which list the holder with different statuses including long-term residency.

    Thich Tam Tri, the head of a Buddhist association to help Vietnamese people in Japan, is seen in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward on Nov. 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Nakagawa)

    Of the 13 Vietnamese people Gunma Prefectural Police arrested on Oct. 26, four of them were slapped with additional charges of carrying forged residence cards, with two of them subsequently being indicted.

    In the third and final part of this series, the Mainichi Shimbun speaks to a Vietnamese technical intern trainee who disappeared from their place of work and was later arrested on suspicion of overstaying their visa.

    (Japanese original by Hinako Kikuchi and Naomichi Senoo, Maebashi Bureau, and Yuki Nakagawa, Saitama Bureau)

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