Japanese firms exploit internship scheme to secure cheap labour
Faced with a shrinking workforce, bosses recruit Asian interns who are often cheated out of their wages and forced to work overtime
When Chinese textile worker Wang Mingzhi heard he could more than triple his income with a three-year apprentice stint in Japan, he eagerly paid a broker US$7,300 in fees and deposit.
From afar, Japan seemed a model of prosperity and order, while the Japanese government's backing of the training programme helped ease worries about going abroad.
But when he joined 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 in a huge warehouse, 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 monthly wages were withheld, except for overtime.
Anyone who did not like the conditions could return to China, their boss told them. But Wang would lose most of his deposit. And 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 labour shortages by relying on interns from China, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia.
The programme is intended to help developing countries upgrade their workers' technical expertise, but critics say it is abused by some employers who see it as a source of cheap labour.
Employers committing violations such as failing to pay wages numbered 197 last year, down more than half from 452 in 2008, according to Japanese officials. Lawyers and labour activists say the true number is many times higher and interns fear being sent home if they speak up.
Eight current and former interns described being cheated of wages, forced to work overtime, having contracts withheld or being charged exorbitant rents for cramped, poorly insulated housing.
The internship system has been criticised by the UN and the US State Department, which in its annual "Trafficking in Persons Report" said Japan was failing to stop cases of forced labour.
"In reality, many are working like slaves," said Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer who has represented several interns in court cases.
Unions and others have called for the programme, established in 1993, to be abolished and replaced with a formal system for employment of foreign workers. That will better meet the demand for low-skilled labourers as young Japanese flock to the cities and shun work that is dirty, dangerous or difficult, they say.
"We need to stop the deception," ZWU All United Workers Union vice-president Ippei Torii said. "If we need to bring in foreign workers, then we should call them workers and treat them so."
The government strengthened laws covering the programme in 2010, including prohibiting trainees from paying deposits to labour brokers. Japanese employers are expected to pay the third-party agencies. A panel of experts and officials is reviewing the programme again to see if it needs further changes.
Hidenori Sakanaka, former chief of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau, who has become a champion for immigration, said Japan needs 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years or its economy will collapse.
"That's really our only salvation," said Sakanaka, now head of a think tank. "We should allow these people to enter the country on the assumption that they could become residents of Japan."