The United States has issued a strongly worded criticism of the Japanese government's Industrial Trainee and Technical Internship Programme, describing the scheme that supposedly aids young foreign workers as "forced labour".
Washington's annual Trafficking in Persons Report, unveiled by Secretary of State John Kerry, ranks Japan in the second tier of countries where trafficking is prevalent, putting it on a par with India and Afghanistan.
The government's trainee programme came in for particular criticism, with lawyers who have represented foreign victims of labour violations expressing fears that the situation will worsen, as the government has announced plans to extend and expand the scheme.
Introduced to promote basic industrial and technical skills among young trainees from other countries in Asia, the programme has 151,000 members in Japan. Some 73 per cent are Chinese and the majority of the rest come from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.
And while the concept is laudable, the reality has been that the scheme has been abused by employers to serve as a source of cheap labour, and participants have few rights.
The US report said trainees paid as much as US$7,300 to take part, but were required to sign "contracts that mandate forfeiture of thousands of dollars if workers try to leave".
Many of the trainees are placed in jobs that do not teach technical skills - such as labouring to bring in crops on farms - while some are underpaid. Others were charged inflated rents for "cramped, poorly insulated housing that keeps them in debt", the report said.
In some cases, company owners have confiscated trainees' passports and other personal documents, effectively making them illegal aliens and ensuring they do not try to abscond.
"We completely agree with the US report and want the system to be abolished," said Lila Abiko, a lawyer who has represented a number of interns,
"The reality of the system is different from the purpose that was initially stated, and it is simply a way of exploiting cheap labour," she said. "There have been numerous cases of human rights abuses under this system."
Abiko estimates that around 20 court cases are presently being heard involving the trainee scheme. Some allege overtime payments of 300 yen (HK$22.82) an hour, far below the minimum wage of 800 yen per hour.
The most distressing case that Abiko was involved in, she said, was the death in June 2008 of a man called Jiang Xiadong from heart failure.
Jiang, from Jiangsu province, died in his sleep at the age of 31 after working more than 100 hours of overtime - in addition to the 350 hours of regular work per month - at a metal processing company in Ibaraki prefecture, north of Tokyo.
Earlier time cards showed that Jiang put in 180 hours of overtime in November 2007, meaning that he worked more than 17 hours a day for every day of the month.
Jiang's family received 57.5 million yen in compensation from the company.
Abiko welcomed the US condemnation of the system, but noted that the State Department had included the trainee scheme in the report for eight straight years and nothing had changed.
"What is really worrying to me is that the government is now planning to extend the time that trainees work here from a maximum of three years to five."