Japan’s labour shortage proves deadly for foreign workers, with more than 100 killed in a decade and 2,500 injured every year

  • Amid a severe lack of manpower, positions in Japan’s construction and manufacturing sectors are increasingly being filled by overseas labourers
  • The jobs are dubbed ‘dirty, hard and dangerous’, but the foreign workers are willing to accept the risks
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2018, 10:53pm

Work-related accidents killed 125 foreigners in Japan in the decade leading up to 2017, and injure an estimated 2,500 every year, according to the labour ministry.

Many of the accidents took place in the construction and manufacturing sectors, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare said in a report, with workers falling from heights on construction sites, being caught in machinery or struck by vehicles.

The Japanese refer to jobs in these sectors as the “Three Ks”: kitanai, kitsui and kiken – dirty, hard and dangerous. Given the nation’s falling birth rate and a worsening shortage of labour, these positions are increasingly being filled by workers from overseas who are willing to put up with the risks.

The ministry said it would remind companies of their responsibility to ensure that safety measures were in place for all employees and propose that more be done to make sure that foreign workers – many of whom may not have sufficient Japanese-language skills to understand the safety requirements – receive special attention when it comes to ensuring their well-being.

The ministry plans to produce safety guides in various languages, although lawyers say more needs to be done and that relatives of the dead or those who sustain serious injuries need to be provided with the information they require to access the compensation they are due.

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“There is a severe shortage of manpower in Japan, but particularly in the nation’s rural areas and in sectors such as fisheries and agriculture,” said Keiko Kato, a lawyer with the Masuda Law Office in Tokyo who specialises in foreign workers’ cases.

Of particular concern is the Technical Internship Trainee Programme, which was introduced in 1993 and described by the government as a scheme to help people from developing countries to learn new skills that could then be transferred back to their home countries at the end of their stay in Japan.

The scheme has been roundly criticised, however, as employers have abused the system to access cheap labour. There have been numerous reports of employers paying far less than the legally mandated minimum wage, making workers put in unpaid overtime and providing them with sub-standard accommodation and other working conditions.

Labour ministry data shows that 22 foreign trainees died in work-related accidents between 2014 and 2016, including one from the Philippines who died from “karoshi”, or overwork. That amounts to 3.7 deaths per 100,000 workers, more than double the rate for Japanese trainees.

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Conditions at some facilities taking part in the trainee scheme are so bad that foreign workers have run away and started to work illegally.

“We estimate that there are around 66,500 people who have overstayed their visas and are working illegally in Japan now, mostly from South Korea, China and Thailand,” Kato told the South China Morning Post. “Although it is impossible to know the real number.”

In early November, five trainees testified in the Japanese Diet about their experiences, detailing low wages, poor conditions and accidents they had witnessed.

A Chinese woman who worked at a sewing factory in Gifu prefecture told the panel she was paid ¥300 (HK$20.67, US$2.60) per hour, less than half the prefecture’s minimum wage, and was required to work from 8am to midnight. Another Chinese national said she tried to kill herself by jumping from the roof of the paper processing company where she worked in Shizuoka prefecture after being bullied and harassed.

There are about 257,000 technical trainees in Japan and they are permitted to remain for five years, although the government is discussing changes to its immigration laws to bring in more foreign nationals to make up for the labour shortage.