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Pandemic job losses show flawed system that gathers foreigners to Japan for 'single-use'

Rice, vegetables, canned food, and other items are being distributed to individuals, including foreign residents, who are struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, as part of a consulting event in the city of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, on Dec. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

TOKYO -- The coronavirus pandemic has been aggravating the lives of technical intern trainees and other foreigners who are already placed in vulnerable positions in Japanese society.

    As companies and government offices wrapped up their year, a consulting session targeting individuals concerned over their daily lives was held in the eastern Japan city of Ota, Gunma Prefecture, on Dec. 28, 2020. Consultations were offered by Anti-Poverty Network Gunma, which consists of legal experts and welfare workers in the prefecture, and the northern Kanto region-based nonprofit organization Amigos, which provides health care assistance and other general support to foreigners. Foreign residents were also seen attending the event from the morning, alongside their Japanese counterparts.

    A Filipina in her 60s, who has a long-term resident visa and worked in a factory in Gunma Prefecture, said that she was laid off in March 2020. Although she lives with her son, who is in his 30s and suffers from a chronic disease, she said with a shake of her head, "I can't even bring my son to the hospital, given our current financial situation."

    A Peruvian in his 40s at a park near the event's venue said, "I'd managed to work until November, but then I was suddenly fired, maybe because coronavirus infections have risen again." Digging into a bento box cooked by the event organizers' staff, he said, "I have no clue how I can make a living from now on."

    Munehiro Nakamichi, a judicial scrivener and head of Anti-Poverty Network Gunma, expressed a growing sense of crisis, saying, "The reality that those placed in vulnerable positions in society, such as elderly people, single mothers, and foreigners, are being driven into a corner has come to the fore amid the third wave of coronavirus infections."

    Masataka Nagasawa, head of the administrative office of Amigos, said that there have been an increasing number of cases where foreigners, who have been unable to pay their rent following the coronavirus outbreak, are seeking shelter at the homes of those from the same home countries. Nagasawa said, "We have been sending out soap, masks, medical thermometers, and other items as part of coronavirus countermeasures, but the number of households we shipped the equipment to fell from around 400 to around 300 by the beginning of December. I'm worried that the risk of infection has grown larger since a lot of people are living in a small room together."

    The city of Ota was the scene of suspected immigration law violations in October 2020, in which a group of Vietnamese nationals living in the city were arrested on suspicion of overstaying their visas, among other crimes. The arrests came in connection with large-scale livestock thefts from businesses mainly north of Tokyo. A significant number of the Vietnamese nationals, who were men and women aged from in their 20s to in their 30s, were technical intern trainees who fled their workplaces due to various reasons. Many foreigners, including technical interns, had been living in and around Ota, which is home to over 20 industrial complexes.

    Investigations by Gunma Prefectural Police and other law enforcers on the livestock thefts are ongoing, and the full picture of the case is yet to be uncovered. However, one of the suspects reportedly stated, "I worked at a welding factory until April, but quit after work decreased because of the coronavirus," which suggests that the individuals had been struggling to get by.

    There are many cases where technical interns or foreign students seeking work come to Japan while shouldering a large amount of debt resulting from deals with malicious brokers in their home countries. Furthermore, there are endless cases of unpaid wages, as well as violence, sexual harassment, and other forms of abuse by employers in Japan.

    Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan's Ippei Torii is seen in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Nov. 20, 2020. (Mainichi/Jun Ida)

    "While the issue of poverty among foreign residents brought about by a system that treats technical interns and other migrant laborers as 'single-use objects' has been exposed, there have also been farms and fisheries that have ceased to function as new trainees have been unable to enter the country. It can be said that the coronavirus pandemic highlighted these two factors," pointed out Ippei Torii, representative director of Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, also known as Ijuren.

    Torii reflected that up until the early 1990s, it was not rare for police to turn a blind eye to foreigners overstaying their visas, who had no legitimate residency status. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 1993 a peak of around 300,000 foreigners were reported to be living in Japan while overstaying their visas. He said, "It is impossible for these figures to get so high unless the government has approved of such practices as a policy. The situation was left unaddressed as industries became dependent on the labor of individuals overstaying their visas without offering them any systemic support, and such individuals were replaced with people with Japanese ancestry and technical interns." The technical intern training program was established as an extension of a scheme that began in 1993. The 2009 revision of the immigration law established an independent visa status category for technical interns, prompting a sharp rise in its numbers.

    Japan claims that the purpose of the technical intern training program is to "transfer the nation's technical skills, techniques and knowledge to developing countries, and to contribute to nurturing human resources that will lead the development of these countries' economies." However, the actual nature of the program is far from it.

    "Following the spread of the coronavirus, the Japanese government has allowed technical interns to shift to different types of jobs (from the original occupations permitted under their residency statuses). This shows that the national government's continuous facade of claiming that the technical intern training program is a way to 'transfer technology to other countries' has been thrown out, and that the government has admitted that the trainees were merely 'a convenient labor force.' If a transfer of skills is truly the purpose of the program, officials should first ensure the protection of the lives of trainees who lost their jobs."

    In 2019, the Japanese government implemented a set of new "skilled worker" visa statuses, in response to the voices of business circles that demanded that labor shortages be resolved. Although the government envisioned welcoming as many as some 40,000 people in the new system's first fiscal year, the actual figure stood at just under one-tenth of that number. "What's more, about 90% (of those who acquired the skilled worker visa) consisted of technical interns who switched their visa status. Even though the trainees are supposed to return to their home countries once training is over to transfer their skills, in reality, the training program has turned into a trial period preceding jobs as skilled workers," added Torii.

    He criticizes the Japanese government as having continued to make ad-hoc policies, such as a sudden shift to beefing up law enforcement control on individuals who overstay their visas, from the earlier policy of letting such cases slide. Other such policies include the expansion of nominal categories for visa statuses, such as 'technical intern' and 'foreign student,' while depending on the labor of such individuals, and the establishment of the new 'skilled worker' category, which failed badly before the pandemic. And all the while these foreign residents are, in fact, immigrants to Japan.

    Furthermore, the current program is not consistent with the requests of employers in Japan. Torii said that as he has worked as an expert in the matter to talk with those who hire foreigners across the country, he was finding out that communities suffering from population declines and labor shortages wished for foreigners to migrate there on a full scale.

    "A representative of an agricultural corporation told me that they'd like people who will 'engage in fruit production in earnest' to come work for them. There was also a member of a shipowner association from a different region who said that 'fishing here would not hold up were it not for the trainees.' I feel that there is a growing number of Japanese people engaging in their work diligently on the ground who have learned from experience that nationality is irrelevant in these cases," revealed Torii.

    Torii has pushed for the abolishment of the current technical intern training program, which leaves room for interference from malicious brokers, and calls for a system that treats incoming foreigners as "laborers," and matches them with employers in the field via the local government-run "Hello Work" public employment security services.

    He concluded by saying, "It's impossible for individuals to come to Japan while already having the desired skillsets, and many employers in the field don't have such expectations either. It's natural for employers to judge whether workers are fit for the job while working with them, and it's also natural for foreigners to wish to continue their jobs as they grow familiar with the workplace and become fond of the community. I'm sure that not everyone has the mindset that anything goes as long as the pay is good. The trainees come to Japan as people, not as a labor force that was transferred to the country. The current setup of the program does not consider the reality that it's people who are working. I guess you can call it merely a deskbound discussion, or an armchair theory to be found online."

    (Japanese original by Jun Ida, Integrated Digital News Center, Evening Edition Group)

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