About 735 Bhutanese youths were sent to Japan starting from 2017 till date through the ‘learn and earn’ program arranged by the Bhutan Employment Overseas (BEO), a private overseas employment agency.
The students were sent to various parts of Japan in 24 different schools under the scheme. The first batch was sent in April, 2017. Of the total sent to Japan so far, 90 have returned back of which 30 reported to the BEO about their return.
The parents of the students started communicating with each other on the matter and so around 60 parents and students who returned gathered together to share their concerns and the experiences of the students.
After gathering the collective views of the the parents and students, they put forward a letter to BEO seeking clarifications and accountability which the BEO has to answer within a time period of ten days.
The group alleged that the recent suicide case could be due the pressing situation faced by the students in Japan. The talked of another case of a severe work place accident that left a youth paralyzed and another case where a girl was brain damaged. The parents also claimed that six students in Tokyo suffered from TB leading to huge additional debt due to medical bills and not being allowed to work due to their condition. They said the same could happen to others too
The students alleged that the agency failed to give them the work which the agency promised would be given within one month of their arrival in Japan. The students alleged that the agency made it clear that the students will have to take up two jobs in order to repay the loan and bear the tuition fees. They said the institute and the agent were supposed to provide a job each but the students alleged that neither agency nor the schools provided them any job in most of the cases.
“We had to search for the job ourselves which was a lie right from the beginning”, said Tandin Chophel who returned this year after finding no hope in prolonging his stay in Japan. “It is not because we are not able to work, but the main issue is with sustainability which the agency has manipulated us.”
It was found that the job provided by the agency paid lesser than the ones found by the own efforts of the students. “We later found out that around 300 Yen per hour is taken by the agency in Japan linked with BEO as a commission,” alleged Tandin adding that it was another thing the BEO did not mention.
“Our hopes got elevated when the BEO said we could easily pay our loan within a year or two and that we can earn millions once the work visa is obtained,” Tandin said. He however said that for obtaining a working visa, one has to pass N2 which is utterly impossible with the time schedule between two-part time job and language class from Monday till Saturday.
Tandin tried to convey his concerns to the partnering agency of BEO in Japan, but he said the company was nonexistent for them. “We tried to contact through ‘Line’ application which was the only way, but they never responded.”
Dorji Choden, who was among the first batch said that the work condition was extreme in a factory she used to work and the supervisors often abused many of the Bhutanese students at the work place. “Along with the pressure to pay the loan, pass exams and the tough work environment, we were also charged exorbitant amount of rent by the schools,” she added.
The students said that the rental apartment is managed by the institutes themselves. The students alleged that the BEO briefed that the two students have to share a room each but on reaching Japan, the rooms which is supposed to be shared by two, were being shared by at least four to six students. “We were cramped in one small room which is supposed to be shared by two and charged rent on per head basis,” said a group of students.
The students said the two representative of the company named Tandin Wangchuk and Endo Sensei was placed in Japan to monitor the students in Japan. However, the students alleged that the two were ignorant even when contacted about the issues. “We went there mainly because we thought we could do Master’s after the completion of language program which the BEO had promised us, but in reality, neither was it possible to pass the exam nor was it possible for the students like us who comes from underdeveloped country to pursue a Master’s degree in Japan”
“Working day and night and having to attend class at the same time, we did not even have the time to study which makes it impossible to pass the exam and get a working visa here,” the students said. The students also alleged that the actual license of the agency belong to a former broadcast journalist.
Tshering Yangki, who was among the 2017 October batch said the main reason for students still being in Japan is because the students are stranded by the loans and their fear of destroying the hopes of their parents.
“The schools also charged us higher tuition fees compared to the ones coming from other countries like Nepal and Vietnam”, she said which she could not understand.
The students before leaving for Japan have to learn a basic Japanese language course for four to six months. They said the Japan language institute is run by the BEO Managing Director’s wife.
The students alleged that the amount guaranteed by BEO to be earned monthly while in Japan was also a lie. “They said we would earn at least 90,000 Bhutanese currency but none of us were getting that much and from the little we earned we had to manage everything which made it impossible to save for the tuition fee for the coming year,” said the students.
The group alleged that while BEO guaranteed that anyone with university degrees will be offered a full-time job in Japan after the completion of a Japanese language course, the agency never mentioned the required level of Japanese fluency in order for the students to get full-time jobs or academic opportunities in higher education in Japan.
“One reason that led us to believe in the program is that the company is an officially registered agent and it is supported by the Ministry of Labor and Human Resources (MOLHR).”
The students were made to take a loan amount of around Nu 700,000 from Bhutan Development Bank Limited (BDBL) through a scheme supported by the Labour Ministry with an annual interest of eight percent with a maximum term for five years. The students have to pay Nu 14,000 every month to cover the loan.
The 700,000 would cover a tuition fee for six months to one year, application fee, insurance fee, dormitory cost for three months and others.
However, the group alleged that actual receipt of the expenditure was not provided, and so they want the actual receipt to be given. “The agency also seemed to have charged us higher than actual amount on air fare too since we learned the actual rate of airfare was much lower than what was reflected in the receipt,” alleged a group of students.
“The receipt provided by the agency is also not accepted by the revenue and custom department of our country while filling PIT” said one of the parents.
The student and parents said that the BEO made the students to sign a second contract just before the departure to Japan. The content of second contract was different from the first contract.
The BEO’s partner company in Japan was changed from Light Path Co. Ltd to a firm called SND. Another change made was the statement on, “The candidate is allowed to work for up to 28 hours per week or more during holiday under the Japanese laws while the candidate is enrolled in the Japanese language school” was changed to “All the candidates must achieve the N2 level in Japanese laws while the candidates is enrolled in the Japanese language school.”
The BEO MD Jurmey Tshewang said the statement was changed after the recommendation of MoLHR.
The students said the briefing was given for two times before the contract was signed and one after the contract is signed.
“The first briefing was all encouraging but after the signing was done and documents was processed, another briefing was done which was about the hardships and work nature of Japanese people which was discouraging” Yangki said. The second briefing was done with a video recording. “By the time we gave a second thought and wanted to withdraw our contract, we would have to pay a penalty of Nu. 50,000 as stated in the first contract which is a huge amount for us,” said students. Some also alleged that the agency said that the original documents and marksheets wouldn’t be returned.
“Students are just stuck there because they either don’t see a future coming back to Bhutan because no job will be enough to pay Nu 14,000 every month to the bank”. “We just returned with the hope of trying our luck in other Middle East countries or Australia, if possible, because the situation in Japan was a nightmare.”
While passing N2 of JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) is one of the requirements stated on the second contract, the students said it is very challenging to pass the N2 exam. “It is impossible to pass the exam with no time left between attending class and doing a part time job to meet the expenses for a month and to clear the loan,” said students.
Meanwhile, on 6th December, a Bhutanese student was deported to Bhutan. This was the first case among the Bhutanese. Lhamo reached Japan last year in October. She said the reason for being deported was that the while immigration picked a sample student to study on students studying in Japan from abroad, she was picked as one. “Upon scanning my resident card, it showed all my details and it was found that I was doing two part-time jobs which is against the immigration law.” She said that it’s impossible to survive with a single job.
“We were clearly briefed by BEO that we will be doing two jobs to survive but we were not told that its illegal” she said, adding that there is no none taking a single job and some are even doing three part-time jobs to cover the expenditure. “If the immigration checks all, I’m afraid that all 700 plus students will be deported back here,” she said.
Meanwhile, a group of parents and students submitted a letter to BEO seeking clarification and accountability.
BEO said the response would be given within ten days.
The clarification was asked on the amount spent from the student’s loan and on why the students undergoing the same program were made to avail different loan amounts.
The letter also asked why the students who were promised a job right upon reaching Japan were left without a job for months. “Without any help from BEO and school in looking for a job, students took two to three months in finding jobs which has affected in paying back the loan,” said the letter.
“Forget about providing job, your office has terribly failed to monitor the working condition and the overall situation of the students there,” said the letter.
The letter also asked on accountability of the recent case of a girl being deported. The group said that the situation applies to almost all the students in Japan for taking two jobs to survive and that if it resulted in sudden deportation, then the BEO would bear all the responsibility in such a matter.
“We require this explanation within ten days not to pressure your office but we believe this matter is serious since students in Japan are struggling beyond their survival ability” said the parents. “We want to address these issues before it’s too late because we don’t want other fellow Bhutanese students in Japan to undergo the recent unfortunate case of losing a life.” The parents said the concern is also regarding those who have returned back home before they could pay back the loans.
The BEO MD said the incidents are not intended there are bound to be mistakes since the program is new.
He said, “The program has been studied and assessed by none other than the Minister, Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR), and his delegation who visited Japan in March 2017”. “The delegation met with the relevant stakeholders across Japan and returned satisfied that there is good scope for Bhutanese youth.” He added that the MoLHR officials also visited Japan twice more thereafter where they met the students and assessed their situation.
“Our mistake is that we failed to understand the nature of our youths,” said Jurmey.
He also said that in order to ensure that no youth makes a hasty, ill-informed decision to go to Japan, BEO strictly follows the process where the interested candidate compulsorily attends a two-hour briefing where every aspect of the program is spelled out also asking the students to bring along parents or guardian. “The candidate and guardian are given adequate time to decide to participate in the program or not. After that only they sign a contractual agreement with BEO,” he said, adding that during the briefing, utmost care is being taken to ensure that no undue far-fetched promises are made that would tempt the youth.
“On the contrary, the hopes and expectations are deliberately kept low while the difficulties and challenges of living and working in Japan are highlighted,” said Jurmey.
On the current situation of youth studying Japanese language in Bhutan, he said that the BEO has decided to halt the program for the time-being and concentrate on supporting those who are already placed in Japan. However, there is a handful who did not manage to get the COE during their earlier attempts and want to try again.
He said that for the interaction with students, the BEO operates Facebook groups where students in Japan, the BEO, the Principal Agent in Japan and the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources can interact with each other. “These groups are created batch-wise before the students leave for Japan and have thus far been very useful to stay abreast with the situations of students, take in their concerns and put in interventions to support them,” said the MD.
Meanwhile, responding to a question on the issue in the Friday meet Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering said that it is a multi-faceted issue. He said that at one level it is about the huge shock of a person from a third world economy and system getting a culture shock in a first world economy with stringent working and performance conditions.
The PM said the government cannot push legally but it will try and work on the social side through the Labour Ministry and see if the loan interest can be waived off. The PM stressed that the Japan program was executed by a different group and calling the students back would not be a solution.
The PM said that the government was looking at a work internship program which pays better. Lyonchhen said that students going abroad must follow the laws of the country.
He said that the government is working to bring back the body of the student who committed suicide. Since there was no budget the government submitted the matter to the Office of the Gyalpoi Zimpon after which His Majesty granted the USD 20,000 required to bring back the body.
The Japan program was handed over to the ACC for investigation by the former government.