NYT has video and article on JITCO NJ “Trainee” Program, including sweatshop conditions and karoushi

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Hi Blog. Following The Economist London, The Old Grey Lady (the overseas paper the GOJ cares most about) has finally gotten around to reporting in depth on the abuses in the JITCO NJ “Trainee” program, including the exploitative work conditions and even death. Good. The NYT article also reports that pay and treatment reforms have taken place since July 1, but cast doubt on their effectiveness. Anyway, good to have this out on video and in text. This is probably why the GOJ is so loath to acknowledge any of the 127 “Trainee” deaths mentioned below as from overwork — it makes headlines overseas.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo.

Training Programs or Sweatshops?
From across Asia, about 190,000 migrant trainees toil in Japanese factories and farms. Allegations of labor abuses against these workers are widespread.
New York Times July 20, 2010, Courtesy of Bendrix



Japan Training Program Is Said to Exploit Workers
NYT July 21, 2010


HIROSHIMA, Japan — Six young Chinese women arrived in this historic city three summers ago, among the tens of thousands of apprentices brought to Japan each year on the promise of job training, good pay and a chance at a better life back home.

Instead, the women say, they were subjected to 16-hour workdays assembling cellphones at below the minimum wage, with little training of any sort, all under the auspices of a government-approved “foreign trainee” program that critics call industrial Japan’s dirty secret.

“My head hurt, my throat stung,” said Zhang Yuwei, 23, who operated a machine that printed cellphone keypads, battling fumes that she said made the air so noxious that managers would tell Japanese employees to avoid her work area.

Ms. Zhang says she was let go last month after her employer found that she and five compatriots had complained to a social worker about their work conditions. A Japanese lawyer is now helping the group sue their former employer, seeking back pay and damages totaling $207,000.

Critics say foreign trainees have become an exploited source of cheap labor in a country with one of the world’s most rapidly aging populations and lowest birthrates. All but closed to immigration, Japan faces an acute labor shortage, especially for jobs at the country’s hardscrabble farms or small family-run factories.

“The mistreatment of trainees appears to be widespread,” said Shoichi Ibusuki, a human rights lawyer based in Tokyo.

From across Asia, about 190,000 trainees — migrant workers in their late teens to early 30s — now toil in factories and farms in Japan. They have been brought to the country, in theory, to learn technical expertise under an international aid program started by the Japanese government in the 1990s.

For businesses, the government-sponsored trainee program has offered a loophole to hiring foreign workers. But with little legal protection, the indentured work force is exposed to substandard, sometimes even deadly, working conditions, critics say.

Government records show that at least 127 of the trainees have died since 2005 — or one of about every 2,600 trainees, which experts say is a high death rate for young people who must pass stringent physicals to enter the program. Many deaths involved strokes or heart failure that worker rights groups attribute to the strain of excessive labor.

The Justice Ministry found more than 400 cases of mistreatment of trainees at companies across Japan in 2009, including failing to pay legal wages and exposing trainees to dangerous work conditions. This month, labor inspectors in central Japan ruled that a 31-year-old Chinese trainee, Jiang Xiaodong, had died from heart failure induced by overwork.

Under pressure by human rights groups and a string of court cases, the government has begun to address some of the program’s worst abuses. The United Nations has urged Japan to scrap it altogether.

After one year of training, during which the migrant workers receive subsistence pay below the minimum wage, trainees are allowed to work for two more years in their area of expertise at legal wage levels. But interviews with labor experts and a dozen trainees indicate that the foreign workers seldom achieve those pay rates.

On paper, the promised pay still sounds alluring to the migrant workers. Many are from rural China, where per-capita disposable income can be as low as $750 a year. To secure a spot in the program, would-be trainees pay many times that amount in fees and deposits to local brokers, sometimes putting up their homes as collateral — which can be confiscated if trainees quit early or cause trouble.

The Japan International Training Cooperation Organization, or Jitco, which operates the program, said it was aware some companies had abused the system and that it was taking steps to crack down on the worst cases. The organization plans to ensure that “trainees receive legal protection, and that cases of fraud are eliminated,” Jitco said in a written response to questions.

Ms. Zhang says she paid $8,860 to a broker in her native Hebei Province for a spot in the program. She was assigned to a workshop run by Modex-Alpha, which assembles cellphones sold by Sharp and other electronics makers. Ms. Zhang said her employer demanded her passport and housed her in a cramped apartment with no heat, alongside five other trainees.

In her first year, Ms. Zhang worked eight-hour days and received $660 a month after various deductions, according to her court filing — about $3.77 an hour, or less than half the minimum wage level in Hiroshima. Moreover, all but $170 a month was forcibly withheld by the company as savings, and paid out only after Ms. Zhang pushed the company for the full amount, she said.

In her second year, her monthly wage rose to about $1,510 — or $7.91 an hour, according to her filing. That was still lower than the $8.56 minimum wage for the electronics industry in Hiroshima. And her employers withheld all but $836 a month for her accommodations and other expenses, according to her filing.

And as her wages went up, so did her hours, she said, to as many as 16 a day, five to six days a week. Modex-Alpha declined to comment on Ms. Zhang’s account, citing her lawsuit against the company.

As part of the government’s effort to clean up the program, beginning July 1, minimum wage and other labor protections have for the first time been applied to first-year workers. The government has also banned the confiscating of trainees’ passports.

But experts say it will be hard to change the program’s culture.

Economic strains are also a factor. Although big companies like Toyota and Mazda have moved much of their manufacturing to China to take advantage of low wages there, smaller businesses have found that impossible — and yet are still pressured to drive down costs.

“If these businesses hired Japanese workers, they would have to pay,” said Kimihiro Komatsu, a labor consultant in Hiroshima. “But trainees work for a bare minimum,” he said. “Japan can’t afford to stop.”

For almost three years, Catherine Lopez, 28, a trainee from Cebu, the Philippines, has worked up to 14 hours a day, sometimes six days a week, welding parts at a supplier for the Japanese carmaker Mazda. She receives as little as $1,574 a month, or $7.91 an hour — below the $8.83 minimum wage for auto workers in Hiroshima.

Ms. Lopez says Japanese managers at the supplier, Kajiyama Tekko, routinely hurl verbal abuses at her cohort of six trainees, telling them to follow orders or “swim back to the Philippines.”

“We came to Japan because we want to learn advanced technology,” Ms. Lopez said.

Yukari Takise, a manager at Kajiyama Tekko, denied the claims. “If they don’t like it here,” she said, “they can go home.”

But after inquiries by a reporter for The New York Times, a company that organizes the trainee program in Hiroshima, Ateta Japan, said it had advised Kajiyama Tekko to recalculate the wages it pays foreign trainees and ordered it to grant the vacation days owed to the trainees.

“They may have pushed the trainees too hard,” said Hideki Matsunishi, Ateta’s president. “But you must also feel sympathy for the companies, who are all struggling in this economy.”

Jiang Yiyi and Yasuko Kamiizumi contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Tyler Sipe from Hiroshima.

7 comments on “NYT has video and article on JITCO NJ “Trainee” Program, including sweatshop conditions and karoushi

  • “But you must also feel sympathy for the companies, who are all struggling in this economy.”

    My sympathy cup does not runneth over. In fact, my sympathy cup is bone dry.

    Everyone struggles in this economy and no one has it worse than the ‘little guy’ pulling down their monthly wages. So explain again why I must have sympathy for the companies who are exploiting cheap workers, cause I don’t get it.

  • “But you must also feel sympathy for the companies, who are all struggling in this economy.”

    There are multinational companies sitting on billions of cash-on-hand, who make this same argument.

    If a company can’t make a go of it while following basic laws, they don’t deserve to be around–because they don’t play by the rules.

    I am not sure where hurling insults at workers makes the company more profitable. It sounds like a fringe benefit that the management grants to the Japanese workers.

  • “But you must also feel sympathy for the companies, who are all struggling in this economy.”

    What a bunch of crap. Why the heck should we care about a bunch of slave drivers who are blatantly exploiting foreign workers and treating them like used tissue?

    “Yukari Takise, a manager at Kajiyama Tekko, denied the claims. “If they don’t like it here,” she said, “they can go home.””

    Yeah, because they didn’t have a reason to come to Japan in the first place. They can’t just “go home”. What if Japan IS their home? But of course, foreigners are foreigners first and residents second. This seriously makes my blood boil.

  • Yukari Takise needs to be told over and over until she gets it that the workers cant go home if they ve put their house for collateral, and will lose it if they quit.

    Anyone got Kajiyama Tekko’s number?

    All I saw on the net was Takise san’s growing infamous name.

  • “The government has also banned the confiscating of trainees’ passports.”
    Passports are the property of the state that issues them and thus no one should have the right to take them away including the Japanese government, in the first place.

  • John (Yokohama) says:


    “Thursday, July 22, 2010

    Institute barred from foreign trainees
    Kyodo News
    Immigration authorities have taken punitive action to bar the Japan Institute of Management-Labor Science from accepting foreign vocational trainees over the next three years, institute sources said Wednesday.

    A sewing factory in Aichi Prefecture was found to have made three Chinese trainees, introduced by the institute last year, work extended hours beyond their prescribed limit, and the institute has admitted to inadequate supervision, they said.

    The institute, which is required to monitor and report on private firms that have foreign trainees, failed to prevent three Chinese trainees from working overtime at a sewing plant in Aichi Prefecture, they said.

    It has accepted too many trainees and failed to monitor them adequately, they said.

    The institute is under the control of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and is now headed by a former chief of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau.”

  • John (Yokohama) says:


    “Friday, July 23, 2010

    Stop exploiting trainees as cheap labor: lawyers

    Staff writer
    It is high time the government faced facts and scrapped its industrial training and internship program because it is used to exploit foreign trainees as a cheap source of labor, a lawyer group said Thursday, claiming the purpose of the system and its reality are worlds apart.

    The trainee system is touted as making an international contribution by transferring Japan’s industrial expertise to people from developing countries. But in reality, foreign trainees are underpaid and overworked without being given a chance to learn any skills, according to Lawyers’ Network for Trainees.

    “A drastic review of the program is necessary. . . . The system is functioning to receive cheap unskilled laborers and exploit them,” lawyer Lila Abiko, the group’s secretary general, said in Tokyo at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.

    Pointing at the death of a Chinese trainee in Ibaraki Prefecture in 2008 that was recognized as “karoshi” (death from overwork) by a labor office in the prefecture early this month, Abiko said the case is only “the tip of the iceberg.”

    Twenty-seven foreign nationals, most of them in their 20s and 30s, who came to Japan under the training program died in fiscal 2009, marking the second-highest tally on record after the 35 deaths seen the year before. An earlier report on the 2009 fatalities said nine died of brain or heart disease, four died while working, three committed suicide, three died in bicycle accidents and the rest died of unknown causes.

    The training and internship programs, established in 1993 by the government, allow foreigners to work as technical interns at companies for up to two years after they undergo a year of training.

    “I lost all heart,” said Li Quing Zhi, a 34-year-old Chinese, who also attended the news conference.

    Zhi, who came to Japan under the program in 2007, said he worked from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day at a fixture-making company in Saitama Prefecture with only 21 days off a year. He was paid only part of his overtime wages for the first year, just ¥400 per hour. After he complained, Zhi’s work was ended last March.

    “If the Japanese industry needs labor from foreign countries, Japanese citizens have to discuss how to accept them as labor with a full guarantee of labor rights. In this system, they are not guaranteed labor rights,” Abiko said.”

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