Japan's new visa system for migrant workers only extends the scope for exploitation

Saul Takahashi, former Japan researcher at BHRRC

Hundreds of thousands of people can now visit Japan for work, but they enter a labour market rife with human rights abuse.

Stories of abuse by foreign workers in Japan are horribly common, such as that of “Trainee A”, a Cambodian plumber who in 2017 was beaten and racially abused at work so badly that his hard hat was cracked with a hammer. Other reports of abuse include sexual assault, withholding of payment, unsanitary housing, and paying half the minimum wage. 

Japan recently introduced a new visa system for hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to cover blue-collar jobs for a fixed term of five years. But does it improve conditions for migrant workers, or simply extend the current system of exploitation?

Japan is not traditionally a country of immigration, and many segments of the public have a negative, knee-jerk response to the idea of an influx of foreigners. Partly as a result of this sentiment, the only way for an “unskilled” person to enter Japan to work is as a so-called “intern” under the Technical Intern Trainee Programme (TITP).

The TITP was created in the early 1990s, ostensibly as a foreign aid programme. People come from participating Asian countries to work for two or three years as “interns” in Japanese companies, where, in theory, they learn the advanced skills that have made Japan an economic powerhouse.

Despite its seemingly noble purpose, from the outset the TITP has widely been viewed as a way for companies to exploit cheap foreign labour. “Interns” are in theory entitled to the same labour rights as Japanese nationals, but government oversight ranges from extremely lax to non-existent, and violations are commonplace.

There is no way for these 250,000 “interns“ to stay in Japan - they are expected to return to their countries – yet the number of sectors allowed to employ them has grown to include construction, agriculture, care-giving, and possibly soon, convenience stores.

A government survey in 2016 found that 70 per cent of employers failed to abide by labour regulations on interns. Deaths or other injuries are work happen to interns at nearly double the rate of Japanese workers. And a separate government survey of interns who had “absconded” (interns are not allowed to change employers, making them even more vulnerable) found that 67 per cent of them were not paid the minimum wage. (In an apparent effort to blame the victim, the government initially suggested the interns who ran away had “sought higher wages”.)

The TITP has long been criticised by civil society, UN human rights bodies, and even the US State Department, prompting incremental changes, such as improvements to how the programme is supervised. But fundamental problems have continued, and the system remains a hotbed of abuse.

In June 2018, the Japanese government suddenly announced that it would submit a Bill allowing, for the first time, foreign workers into Japan to work in unskilled sectors. The bill was rammed through parliament with little debate, and many details remain unclear. What has been clear from the start is that, once again, this is not a “system allowing immigration” - foreign workers will be expected to leave after a five-year term, with extra steps taken to discourage them from staying longer.

For example, unskilled foreign workers will not be allowed to bring family members with them. (Under the current system, female interns are banned from having relationships with men, and employers have tried to force interns who become pregnant to have abortions.)

Japan can therefore maintain its homogeneity while benefiting from a labour force willing to work for lower wages than the rest of the population. As with the TITP, the limits on how long foreign workers can stay are meant to dissuade them from rocking-the-boat, for example by demanding basic human rights.

The new law is extremely slim on details, and there are strong concerns that it will just serve as a way to expand TITP into a longer-term programme, with the potential for further abuse. The context is not encouraging.

The KnowTheChain benchmarks, which assess companies on how they address the risk of forced labour in their supply chains, have found that the 12 largest Japanese companies, many from the electronics sector, have an average score of 21/100. On recruitment practices and protecting foreign workers, the average score drops to just 8/100. Electronics giant Hitachi is the only company of the 12 that bans workers in its supply chains having to pay recruitment fees in order to work.

In recent years, Japanese companies have become mindful of these issues, and have started to recognize that the potential for abuse exists not only in their supply chains, but also in Japan. Some leading companies in this area have conducted surveys of their domestic suppliers on the employment of foreign “interns”, and have stressed the need to prevent abuse.

In addition, after Human Rights Now and the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre conducted a joint survey of Japanese apparel companies on human rights, several Japanese garment brands reportedly told their suppliers to ensure the rights of any foreign “trainees” were respected. KnowTheChain has also found that the five Japanese companies it analysed in 2016 and 2018 showed improvements over time.

For example, since 2016 Hitachi trained its suppliers on modern slavery, manufacturer Keyence put forced labor provisions in its supplier contracts, and electronics firm Murata set up a human rights and labor committee to train production workers at least once a year. Other companies, such as footwear multinational Asics, have publicly committed to improve their practices in the area of recruitment, and to develop a remediation and response process for labor rights violations.

However, despite these positive steps and the new visa system, only strong government oversight, with laws mandating due diligence by companies, can force real change, and end the practice of treating foreign workers as cheap and expendable.

Saul Takahashi is a former Japan researcher at BHRRC