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Coronavirus crisis pushing many foreign trainees in Japan out of work, into poverty

Residents of a support group facility in Tokyo's Minato Ward put their hands together before dinner on Jan. 15, 2021. Many Vietnamese people live at the facility. (Mainichi/Toshiaki Uchihashi)

TOKYO -- Dozens of foreign technical trainees in Japan have lost their jobs at companies experiencing a downturn in performance during the coronavirus crisis. About 80 trainees are still struggling to find a new job in a country that remains unfamiliar to them, as the dearth of flights caused by the pandemic has severely limited options to return home. Lacking shelter or even food, many are turning to support groups.

    One 34-year-old Vietnamese technical trainee left his job at a construction company in Niigata Prefecture in December. Though he had planned to stay in the job for three years, he quit after only 1 1/2 years as work dried up and his already low salary sank even further.

    "My family is in trouble because I've stopped sending money," he lamented.

    At the company, he was building scaffolding at construction sites. With a monthly salary of just around 130,000 yen (about $1,240), he cut spending on food by eating instant noodles and sent nearly 100,000 yen every month back home to his elderly parents, wife and two children. As work decreased beginning last spring, his salary also fell to between 90,000 yen and 100,000 yen (roughly $860 and $950), forcing him to cut back his monthly remittances home.

    Since he quit the job and left the company dorm, he has been living in a building run by the Japan Vietnam Mutual Support Association, a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo's Minato Ward. While getting aid from the association, he has been looking for a company where he can work as a trainee, but he said the coronavirus crisis has made jobs scarce. He has lost confidence, saying, "It's especially difficult for me, because I can't speak Japanese very well."

    Meanwhile, some young people cannot return home due to the soaring price of airline tickets, though they have completed their training periods.

    A 24-year-old man from a farming village in southern Vietnam finished his three-year training period at a construction company in Saitama Prefecture last October. Though he intended to go home immediately, the number of flights to Vietnam had plummeted because of the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, the price of a one-way ticket, which used to be between 30,000 yen and 40,000 yen (around $290 and $380), has jumped to 200,000 yen to 300,000 yen (approx. $1,900 to 2,860), which he cannot afford.

    He stayed at his friend's house for a while after leaving the company dorm, but as his savings dwindled, he could not pay rent. That's when he went to the support group.

    His family members in Vietnam, whom he talks with via video call almost every day, worry about his life in Japan, where infections are spreading.

    According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, as of early December last year, training programs for some 51,000 foreigners had halted due to layoffs and bankruptcies caused by the pandemic. Some trainees have either found work or gone home, but as of Jan. 25 about 80 people were still looking for jobs.

    Among them are apparently many Vietnamese citizens, who account for half of all foreign trainees. According to the support group, many of them are from poor farming villages. A lot of them incur 700,000 yen to 1 million yen (some $6,660 to $9,520) in debt to come to Japan, so most of their income is used to repay that or is sent home. This support group has accepted about 400 Vietnamese people since last spring and provided shelter and other support.

    Kobe University Graduate School associate professor Yoshihisa Saito, an expert in the Technical Intern Training Program, pointed out, "Japan needs to actively support the trainees, starting with reemployment."

    Jiho Yoshimizu, head of the support group, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "I want the government to push forward making a system that connects motivated trainees with companies."

    (Japanese original by Toshiaki Uchihashi, City News Department)

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