Widespread labour standards violations among Japanese businesses with so-called technical interns

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Morning commuters in Tokyo, Japan. Image via Rawpixel licence (CC0 1.0)

Migrant workers from Vietnam, China and other Asian countries who are employed in Japan through a government-led scheme called the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) and work as technical interns often face labour problems in their workplaces. Inspections by the Labour Standard Offices found that 7,247 out of 9,829 worksites (over 70 percent) with technical interns breached labour or occupational safety and health standards, which was the highest level since 2003. Offences included poor safety instruction or non-payment for overtime work. 

Some examples of violations include a company having technical interns operate cranes or heavy machinery without an operator license. In another case, a company made technical interns work outside of the normal work hours, which reached 100 hours a month on average. As the Japanese government looks to accept more technical interns, civil society organisations are calling for a swift rectification of this issue.

The TITP was established in 1993. Its official purpose is to promote the development of occupational skills among technical interns and transfer such skills and technologies to their countries of origin. However, in reality, the TITP virtually serves to recruit migrant workers to fill workforce shortages due to factors such as the country’s ageing population. At the same time, the “sending” countries such as Indonesia see this scheme as an opportunity to provide more employment for younger populations.

Currently, over 340,000 people are enrolled in the TITP. The technical interns are mainly from Asian countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines and China. Under the scheme, they will be able to reside in Japan and work for up to five years. Typically, the technical interns are recruited by “Supervising Organizations” and connected with employers. The Supervising Organizations are also responsible for providing support for their daily lives and monitoring their working environments. As of 2020, the largest number of technical interns worked in the construction industry (22.5 percent), followed by the food processing (19 percent) and the machinery and metal industries (14.2 percent).

Though it has been over 30 years since its inception, some have noted that the scheme makes the technical interns vulnerable to various human rights and labour rights violations.

This stems from the designs of the TITP programmes with rules that prohibit technical interns from switching employers and weak supervision by the Supervising Organizations. In effect, this leads to some serious cases of mistreatment, including physical or psychological abuse as well as the confiscation of their passports and wage theft by their employers, making it difficult to escape from such workplaces.

Cases of human trafficking have also been reported under the TITP. To make matters worse, technical interns are often charged excessive recruitment fees by their brokers and are often already in debt by the time they move to Japan. A report suggests that over half of the technical interns borrowed an average of USD 3,600 to pay the intermediary bodies during the recruitment process. In such situations, they are left with no choice but to endure unfair treatment by their employers, in fear of dismissal or deportation.

In 2021, a Filipino intern was unfairly fired and pressured to return home after he was severely injured at work. In this case, it was also found that the company had not complied with the labour standards or arranged necessary benefits for him while he was absent from work. With support from a trade union, he was able to receive compensation from the company.

Flawed protections

Japan’s Act on Proper Technical Intern Training and Protection of Technical Intern Trainees envisages the protection of technical interns in case of labour or human rights violations and stipulates that buisnesses that are found to have breached labour standards will be suspended from the programme or get their licenses revoked, making them unable to accept future technical interns. Under this law, technical interns should be provided avenues to report potential misconducts of their employers to the operating entity of the programme, the Organization for Technical Intern Training (OTIT).

The Japanese government has signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with the “sending” countries where the technical interns are from, one of which was with the Vietnamese government in 2017. In the MOU, both governments committed to cooperating to eliminate malicious brokers from the scheme and investigate any breaches of the relevant laws by Supervising Organizations, enterprises and brokers. Furthermore, the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs of Vietnam recently made a request to the Japanese authority to ensure that Vietnamese workers are not forced to return to their home country in cases of pregnancy. There have been numerous cases where technical interns are asked not to get pregnant during the scheme under threat of being sent home or dismissed. 

UN experts and the US government have raised concerns over inadequate penalties for the offenders. In 2022, the UN Human Rights Committee, during their review of the periodic report, noted that those using the TITP to human traffick are not adequately sanctioned, adding that many convicted cases only receive suspended sentences or minor fines. Similarly, the Trafficking in Persons Report by the US government, citing civil society organisations, noted Japanese authorities’ reluctance to proactively investigate potential trafficking cases related to the TITP.

Under the TITP Act, both enterprises and Supervising Organizations will receive administrative sanctions if they violate relevant labour legislation. The OTIT regularly issues a list of enterprises that received disciplinary actions or the revocation of licences. Despite the prevalence of labour standard breaches, only about 120 enterprises lost their permits to accept technical interns in 2022. In the same year, one company was reported to receive an administrative warning to rectify the situation. The OTIT states that the competent ministries decide the types of penalties based on each individual case.

In light of this record, the government has been making efforts to address this issue by providing technical interns support to raise awareness of their labour rights by circulating educational documents in multiple languages, arrangements to change their workplaces, and multilingual hotlines.

In November 2022, an expert panel was set up by the Ministry of Justice and is now considering reforming the current system. The interim report, issued in May 2023, revealed that the government is looking to abolish the current TITP and replace it with a new system. It also highlighted the importance of relaxing restrictions on changing employers as well as enhancing regulations over the Supervising Organizations that fail to protect technical interns from labour and human rights violations in their workplaces.

Yet, civil society organisations remain concerned that this reformation plan may be ineffective unless it ensures the freedom to change employment, bans excessive recruitment fees and subsequent bonded labour, and allows possibilities for future settlement. The final report from the panel is expected in the fall of 2023.

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