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Editorial: Stillborn twins and Japan's contempt for foreign workers' human rights

What has unfolded in two courtrooms in southwestern Japan recently is nothing short of a tragedy, authored by a system that all too easily disregards the human rights of Japan's foreign workers.

    A Vietnamese technical trainee who had been working at a farm in Kumamoto Prefecture has been convicted of dumping the bodies of her stillborn twins at her home. The conviction was confirmed on appeal, as was her suspended sentence.

    The Fukuoka High Court last month agreed with a district court judgment that the woman had deliberately attempted to conceal the infants' bodies by putting them in a pair of cardboard boxes -- one inside the other -- sealing the top and keeping them at her home.

    However, she had also wrapped the bodies in towels, and written a letter with their names and an apology, which she put with the babies' remains. The next day, it was discovered she'd given birth, but until that moment she had not been apart from her twins. We question whether there was any real need to turn this into a criminal case.

    The root of the problem is that the woman feared being fired if her employer found out she was pregnant, so she couldn't talk to anyone about it. She apparently found stories online of foreign technical trainees being forcibly repatriated after getting pregnant. And she was sending most of her monthly pay back to Vietnam to support her family's livelihoods as well as to pay down the some 1.5 million yen (about $13,000) in debt she had when she first arrived in Japan, including to the organization that had sent her here.

    Technical trainees are covered by Japan's labor laws. It is illegal to fire someone for getting pregnant, and employers are required to pay due attention to workers' health. Institutions including the labor ministry have been issuing formal reminders of the rules to organizations and employers hiring the foreign trainees. But it's impossible to say that these reminders are being implemented thoroughly. In the case of the Vietnamese woman, she has said that no one told her that she could not be dismissed for becoming pregnant.

    In the three years and a bit up to the end of 2020, 637 foreign technical trainees ended their work terms early because they were pregnant or gave birth. Just 11 later resumed their positions.

    The contracts trainees sign with sourcing agents sometimes contain provisions committing them to avoid getting pregnant during their job term. There are numerous cases of foreign trainees in Japan being arrested for abandoning their dead infants.

    This country's foreign technical trainee system is itself the problem. The trainee workers are barred from bringing family with them to Japan, and the system has no support structure for trainees who are pregnant or give birth in Japan. These workers' wages are low, and getting pregnant or having a child can spell disaster for their livelihood, while it's also difficult to take child care leave because their job terms are short to begin with. Furthermore, trainees face very high barriers to getting a legal residency status for a newborn child.

    Japan must do away with the present foreign technical trainee program, which is nothing but a front for a system to force the trainees into poor working conditions. It is high time this country rebuilt its structure for accepting foreign workers from the ground up.

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