Asahi: Update on NJ Trainee Worker program: reform or abolition? (UPDATED)


Hi Blog. I’m heading down to Tokyo tomorrow to give a speech at a human-rights retreat for some major Japanese corporations (Kirin, Mitsubishi etc), so I’m not sure when’s the next time I’ll be online. But anyway, here’s an update on what the Japanese government is thinking about the much-abused “Trainee Visa” program for NJ workers (more on the abuses blogged here). Debito in Sapporo

ADDENDUM: Original memos from Nagase included below article, courtesy of an insider friend. (長勢法務大臣のメモ「外国人労働者受入れに関する検討の指示について」、平成19年5月15日付)原文は記事の下です。)


Nagase enters foreign-worker feud

Justice Minister Jinen Nagase proposed that Japan move to accept unskilled foreign workers, a “personal idea” that has startled bureaucrats and complicated debate on reforming a problem-ridden trainee-intern program.

Nagase’s proposal was broached on Tuesday amid a tug-of-war between the labor and industry ministries over their conflicting reform plans released over the past week on the foreign trainee-intern program.

The labor ministry wants to end unlawful labor practices associated with the program, while the industry ministry wants to help smaller companies that are having a tough time finding workers.

Nagase entered the fray Tuesday with a plan that called for the program’s abolition, rather than reform. The plan would, in effect, pave the way for unskilled workers to enter Japan under certain conditions.

Specifically, a limited number of foreigners will be allowed to work up to three years under the supervision of government-sanctioned entities. These workers should not stay after that period, and their wages and working conditions must be safeguarded, according to Nagase’s proposal.

The plan surprised mandarins of both the labor and industry ministries.

“We’ve never expected such a bold plan to come out,” one official said.

The government introduced the trainee-intern program in the early 1990s to help workers from developing countries learn industry skills here.

In their first year, they learn work skills as “trainees.” In the second and third years, they work as “interns” at companies under labor contracts.

Critics say, however, that companies are using them as low-wage workers to make up for labor shortages.

According to Justice Ministry figures, cases of unlawful practices involving foreign trainees and interns shot up to 229 in 2006, from 92 in 2003. In many cases, the foreigners worked overtime hours beyond the limits or were not paid in full.

Some of the workers have taken their problems to court.

To remedy the situation, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare proposed scrapping the “training” part of the program and integrating it into the internship part.

Under the current system, trainees are not subject to labor law protections, including minimum wages, which allowed businesses to exploit them.

But officials of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said the labor ministry’s plan would weaken the program’s intended purpose of technical transfers.

Instead, the industry ministry plans to beef up the program with tighter controls and penalties, and allow interns to work two additional years at small as well as major companies.

The labor ministry’s plan will allow an extension only at major firms.

Japan’s tightening labor market, which has hit smaller companies especially hard, is behind the calls for the program’s review.

In 2006, 41,000 foreign trainees went on to internships, a jump from 11,000 for 1999. Most of the employers were small companies.

To cope with the shortage of workers, business circles are calling on the government to lift the ban on unskilled foreign workers under certain conditions.

But the government has so far maintained its position to keep out unskilled workers for social security and other reasons. The labor ministry insists that accepting them could negatively affect wages and other working conditions for Japanese workers.

Related ministries reconfirmed this stance last June, but Nagase nonetheless came out with his proposal.

Hidenori Sakanaka, director at the nongovernmental Japan Immigration Policy Institute, welcomed Nagase’s idea and urged debate on the issue.

“The current system is an epitome of problems because foreigners are forced to work at low wages in the name of training or internship,” he said. “As Japan’s population shrinks, we need full debate with their (foreign workers’) settlement and permanent residence in view.”

(IHT/Asahi: May 17, 2007)


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