When Chinese textile worker Wang Mingzhi heard he could more than triple his income with a three-year stint working in Japan as an apprentice, he eagerly paid a broker US$7,300 in fees and deposit money.
From afar, Japan seemed a model of prosperity and order. Japanese government backing of the training program he would enter the country under helped ease worries about going abroad. However, when he joined the ranks of 150,000 other interns from poor Asian countries working in Japan, Wang was in for a series of shocks.
Promised a clothing factory job, the 25-year-old wound up at a huge warehouse surrounded by rice paddies where he was told to fill boxes with clothing, toys and other goods. Wang and other new arrivals were not given contracts by their Japanese boss and their monthly wages were withheld, except for overtime.
Anyone who did not like the conditions could return to China, their boss told them. However, then Wang would have lost most of his deposit.
How could he face his family, who were counting on sharing in the US$40,000 he hoped he would earn for three years work?
“We didn’t have any choice but to stay,” Wang said from his bunk in a cramped house he shared with a dozen others in Kaizu, a small city in central Gifu Prefecture.
Wang’s story is not unusual. Faced with a shrinking workforce and tight restrictions on immigration, Japanese employers, such as small companies, farms and fisheries, are plugging labor shortages by relying on interns from China, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia.
The training program is intended to help developing countries by upgrading the technical expertise of their workers, but critics say it is abused by some employers who see it as a source of cheap labor.
Employers committing violations such as failing to pay wages numbered 197 last year, down more than half from 452 in 2008, Japanese officials said.
However, lawyers and labor activists say the true number of offending firms is many times higher since interns fear being sent home if they speak up despite government attempts to prevent abuses.
In interviews, eight current and former interns talked of being cheated of wages, forced to work overtime, having contracts withheld or being charged exorbitant rents for cramped, poorly insulated housing. Some said they were prohibited from owning cellphones.
The internship system has been criticized by the UN and the US Department of State, which in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report said Japan is failing to stop cases of forced labor.
“The program is portrayed as way to transfer technology, and that Japan is doing a wonderful thing, but in reality, many are working like slaves,” said Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer who has represented several interns in court cases.
Some say the plight of the interns highlights the need for Japan to rethink its deep-seated resistance to immigration, out of sheer economic necessity.
A government institute projects Japan’s workforce will plummet by nearly half to 44 million over the next 50 years as the population ages and birthrates remain low. At that rate, many companies will run out of workers.
First-generation immigrants and foreign workers make up less than 2 percent of Japan’s workforce. In the US, the percentage is 14.2 percent, and in Germany the figure is 11.7 percent, according to figures from the UN.