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Why do some foreign trainees in Japan abandon their babies?

Work equipment found at the Vietnamese technical trainee's home is seen here in this photo taken in the Kumamoto Prefecture town of Ashikita on Dec. 16, 2020. Those around her considered her a hard worker. (Mainichi/Yuki Kurisu)

KUMAMOTO -- There have been numerous incidents in which women who are in Japan as participants in the government's Technical Intern Training Program have abandoned their babies after giving birth. After a 21-year-old Vietnamese trainee who worked on a tangerine farm was arrested for deserting twins, she told her attorney that she had had no one to turn to. Why did the woman, who was indicted on Dec. 10, 2020, feel she had no choice but to hide her pregnancy?

    The tangerine farm where the woman worked was on the side of a mountain overlooking the Yatsushiro Sea in the southwestern Japan prefecture of Kumamoto. In mid-December, the trees that are hit by the cold winds coming from the ocean were heavy with ripe, yellow tangerines.

    The written indictment says the woman gave birth to twin boys around Nov. 15, placed the bodies in a cardboard box, and left the box on a shelf in her home. According to the Kumamoto Prefectural Police's Ashikita Police Station, she is believed to have been eight or nine months pregnant when she gave birth, and it is highly likely that the babies were stillborn.

    According to the woman's attorney, Nobuo Matsuno, the woman arrived in Japan in August 2018. Of the approximately 150,000 yen (about $1,446) that she earned monthly cultivating tangerines, she sent about 120,000 to 130,000 yen to her family in Vietnam, and was planning on working in Japan until August 2021.

    Near her home in the town of Ashikita, people saw her commuting to work, and members of the community described her as hardworking. A 76-year-old man who lived nearby said, "She was out of the house before 8 a.m., heading to her workplace with a colleague by bicycle." A 69-year-old woman who runs a market said, "She bought vegetables and eggs, and especially a lot of bean sprouts. She might have been trying to save money by buying a lot of bean sprouts, which are cheap." That, the woman said, was what crossed her mind when she heard that the Vietnamese woman was sending money home. She looked back on the time that the woman would have been pregnant and said, "She was always wearing a hoodie, and I didn't notice that she was pregnant."

    Attorney Nobuo Matsuno and a supporter of the Vietnamese woman hold a press conference in response to the indictment of the woman, a foreign technical trainee, at the Kumamoto Bar Association building in Kumamoto's Chuo Ward on Dec. 10, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Kurisu)

    Attorney Matsuno said that the woman began feeling pain in her belly starting on the morning of Nov. 14, but continued working. By the afternoon, the pain had gotten worse, and she spiked a fever. She was unable to sleep that night, and it is believed that she gave birth to twins between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Nov. 15. The following day, the woman was accompanied by staff from the supervisory organization that receives foreign technical trainees and dispatches them to the places where they will work, and staff from the farm to a hospital, and the abandonment of the babies' bodies came to light.

    Following her arrest, the woman told Matsuno, "I feared that if I became pregnant or gave birth, I would be fired or sent back home, so I couldn't consult anyone about it. I wanted to keep working so that I could continue sending money to my family."

    As with Japanese laborers, Technical Intern Training Program trainees are subject to the Labor Standards' Act, which stipulates that women take a temporary absence from work six weeks before childbirth and eight weeks after. The Equal Employment Act, which prohibits the termination of employees for getting pregnant or giving birth, also applies to trainees, but according to the woman's lawyer, she did not know about it.

    The farm where the woman worked told the Mainichi Shimbun that all questions should be directed to the organization that set up her dispatch to the farm. Meanwhile, the organization told the Mainichi that it could not comment at all about the case.

    Abandonment of babies by foreign trainees has been occurring across the country. In January 2019, a Chinese woman in her 20s who gave birth to a baby boy at her home in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, south of Tokyo, abandoned the baby out of fear of being found out by her supervisors at work and forced to go back to China. She was arrested for negligence as a guardian. In April 2020, after a male fetus with a gestational age of 4 or 5 months was found in a septic tank of a housing development in the western Japan city of Tsuyama, Okayama Prefecture, a Vietnamese woman in her 20s was arrested. She told prefectural police, "I aborted the fetus because getting pregnant as a trainee means being sent back to your home country."

    Makoto Motomura, the executive chairman of Union Kitakyushu, which many trainees turn to for help, says that the organizations that dispatch the trainees from their home countries often ban pregnancies, and the supervisory bodies here that receive and dispatch trainees to their workplaces do not provide sufficient explanations to the trainees about the system that protects their rights surrounding pregnancy and childbirth, and that these two combined are the backdrop against which the series of abandonments have taken place.

    Furthermore, in Vietnam, many trainee hopefuls are forced to pay "security deposits" that are many times more than their annual salary before arriving in Japan, meaning that being unable to work would deal a huge blow to them financially, which leads them to hide their pregnancies.

    The warehouse of the home where the Vietnamese technical trainee lived is seen in this photo taken in the Kumamoto Prefecture town of Ashikita on Dec. 16, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Kurisu)

    In March 2019, Japan's Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare issued a reminder in writing to trainees' workplaces and the supervisory bodies that dispatch trainees to workplaces that the Equal Employment Act applies to trainees, and that the Act on Proper Technical Intern Training and Protection of Technical Intern Trainees that went into effect in 2017 prohibits putting limitations on freedom in trainees' personal lives. The ministries also sought that all trainees be informed of this.

    With labor shortages in Japan, the number of Technical Intern Training Program trainees has been on the rise every year, and as of the end of June 2020 the figure was approximately 400,000. Motomura has demanded that the Japanese government create a system that easily allows trainees to consult others about problems they face, and calls on trainees to "receive a maternal handbook as soon as they realize they are pregnant, and consider giving birth safely."

    There are cases in which trainees consulted others about their pregnancies and things turned out well. For example, about four years ago, Union Kitakyushu was consulted by a Vietnamese trainee who was working at an agriculture-related factory in the southwestern Japanese prefecture of Oita about her pregnancy. The union negotiated with the Japanese organization that dispatched her, as well as her workplace. As a result, the debt that she owed back home in Vietnam was wiped clean, she was transferred to less taxing work, and was able to return to Vietnam to give birth.

    A Technical Intern Training Program trainee rights network, comprising Union Kitakyushu and other groups, periodically sets up hotlines for Vietnamese trainees. Contact Union Kitakyushu for assistance at 093-562-5710.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Kurisu, Kumamoto Bureau)

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