Sat, Mar 23, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Vietnamese workers in Japan face risks as labor system opens up

By Linda Sieg and Ami Miyazaki  /  Reuters, TOKYO

When a young Vietnamese woman found out late last year that she was pregnant after arriving in Japan on a “technical trainee” visa, she was given a stark choice: “Have an abortion or go back to Vietnam.”

However, returning home would leave her unable to pay back the US$10,000 she borrowed to pay recruiters there.

“She needs to stay to pay back her debts,” said Shiro Sasaki, secretary-general of the Zentoitsu (All United) Workers Union, who has advocated on her behalf and said such threats were common.

Buoyed by hopes of higher wages, but burdened by loans, young Vietnamese — the fastest-growing group of foreign workers in Japan — will be among those most affected by a new scheme to let in more blue-collar workers that starts next month.

“Trainees from China have been declining as wages there rise with economic growth, while in Vietnam unemployment is high for youth with high education levels, so many young people want to go abroad to work,” said Futaba Ishizuka, a research fellow at the think tank Institute of Developing Economies.

The technical trainee program is widely known as a back door for blue-collar labor in immigration-shy Japan.

Reported abuses in Japan include low and unpaid wages, excessive hours, violence and sexual harassment.

In Vietnam, unscrupulous recruiters and brokers often charge trainees exorbitant fees.

Such problems would persist and could worsen under the new system, aimed at easing a historic labor shortage, according to interviews with activists, academics, unionists and trainees.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose conservative base fears a rise in crime and a threat to the nation’s social fabric, has insisted that the new law, enacted in December last year, does not constitute an “immigration policy.”

That worries its critics.

“In fact, Japan is already a country of immigrants, but because they say it is not an ‘immigration policy’ and the premise is that people will not stay, they only take temporary steps,” Japan Civil Liberties Union director Akira Hatate said.

“The needs of society are not met and the needs of the workers are not met,” Hatate said.

The trainee system began in 1993 with the aim of transferring skills to workers from developing nations, but persistent abuses developed early on, experts said.

Those issues were spotlighted last year during debate over the new law.

Among the high-profile cases was that of four companies using trainees for decontamination work in areas affected by radiation after the March 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster.

Two firms, also accused of not paying appropriate wages, were banned from employing trainees for five years; the others got warnings from the Japanese Ministry of Justice.

A survey by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare published in June last year showed that more than 70 percent of trainee employers had breached labor rules, with excessive hours and safety problems the most common.

That compared with 66 percent for employers overall.

The Organization for Technical Intern Training, a watchdog group, was set up in 2017.

This month, it issued a reminder to employers that trainees are covered by Japanese labor law. It specifically banned unfair treatment of pregnant workers.

Harsh conditions led more than 7,000 trainees to quit in 2017, experts said, many lured by shady brokers promising fake documentation and higher-paying jobs.

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