A group of foreign technical interns speak about abusive working conditions forced on them by employers during a news conference at the Diet in November 2018 (Photo Courtesy: Japan Times)

MoLHR signs up for another controversial employment program in Japan

The program has been criticized in Japan and internationally for a high rate of deaths and abuse of foreign workers

The Labour Minister says that Bhutanese youth will not encounter such programs and it will be well monitored

One would have thought that the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources (MoLHR) learned its lessons from the controversial Learn and Earn Program (LEP) in Japan, but apparently not.

The MoLHR has signed up for another controversial employment program in Japan known as the Technical Internship Training Program (TITP) and is sending the first batch of 25 Bhutanese students.

The TITP has been fiercely criticized by the Japanese media, international media, TITP’s supposed beneficiaries from different countries and also Japan’s Opposition parties for leaving foreign workers vulnerable and open to abuse.

While on the surface the TITP is a program supposedly run by the Japanese government, the problem with the program is that it is seen as a source of cheap labour by many Japanese companies unable to get Japanese workers.

With no rules protecting these migrant labourers, poor monitoring by Japanese authorities and language barriers there has been a high level of abuse and even deaths under the program.

Japan’s own Justice Ministry came out with a probe report on the program earlier this year, covering the years 2012-2017.

According to the Japan Times and Kyodo News outlets the report found that in this period 171 of the interns had died.

Japan Times said that of the 171 deaths, 28 deaths were due to accidents that happened on work sites like heat exhaustion and drowning.

There were 17 suicide cases and 59 of the interns died of sickness. Among those who died of sickness were two interns whose cases had been reported for work hours that was life-threatening.  One of the 17 who killed themselves got only four days off in three and a half months of work.

Kyodo News said there were also nine cases of death due to murder and assault.

Japan Times said there were 150,000 technical interns in 2012 which increased to 270,000 in 2017.

The probe surveyed 5,218 foreign trainees who went missing from work and found that even within this small pool there were 759 cases of employee abuse.

Kyodo News said that of the 759 trainees 58 were believed to have been paid less than the minimum wage, 69 were underpaid, 92 had excessive deductions from their wages for food and other expenses, 195 were not paid overtime and 231 worked in conditions violating the management-labor pact or in places that did not have the pact meant for overtime work.

The findings also show a high correlation between interns who disappear from work and poor working conditions.

Japan Times said that in 2018 the total number of missing interns rose to 9,052 compared to 7,089 in 2017.

The Japanese government has also come under flak from within Japan on the program.

The Justice Ministry of Japan did the latest survey after it was criticized for getting an earlier survey on trainees’ wrong. The earlier survey wrongfully stated that 87 percent of the respondents left “in pursuit of better pay” when in fact 67 percent of them replied they had left due to “low wages.”

Japan Times said that Justice Ministry officials had earlier speculated that the passage of a new law in November 2017 to improve supervision of companies employing foreigners under the trainee program, has helped curb further abuses of the program and a watchdog was also created but the probe showed in 2018 even after the implementation of the law 658 trainees fled their work places.

A recent program by the BBC titled ‘Migrant workers exploited in Japan,’ highlighted some individual cases of abuse under TTIP. It pointed out that Japan has been a largely homogenous society and it is only recently that it has been forced to open up to migrant labour due to an ageing population.

The program poses an important question on if Japan really wants these migrants and on the lack of safety and protection of their rights.

In the BBC report activists say that the real death figures are much higher.

It says many interns do not speak Japanese and few are properly informed of their rights leaving them vulnerable to abuse.

The news states that the Japanese businesses really struggle to find the staff and so the program has been taking in migrants from Vietnam, China and Cambodia. There are 6000 companies employing technical interns in Japan.

The program say it has become a way for companies to hire cheap labour from abroad.

It says Japan is opening up to more low-skilled immigrants then its ever done in the history. It will allow 345,000 people to come in the next five years.

The BBC program shows a shelter where people running away from the companies stay.

One Chinese woman went into depression and tried to kill herself after she was mercilessly bullied by fellow Japanese workers since she was not a Japanese.

Another Chinese lady was forced to work overtime making clothes for international brands and she was not paid for it. The company gave her fake pay slips. She says she is owed around USD 50,000 for unpaid overtime.

One foreign worker was not trained properly on a machine despite his requests and he ended up losing his fingers. The Japanese owner instead of compensating him tried to fire him and send him back to his country.

In another program titled, ‘Why Many Vietnamese Workers Die in Japan,’ an online Media Company known as Asian Boss highlighted that around half the currently 320,000 TTIP interns are Vietnamese and 140 of them have died all within the age range of 20 to 25.

It says the Vietnamese trainees often work in harsh conditions which lead to many work-related deaths and even suicide.

The program says that the Japanese people are not aware about the harsh reality of their working conditions and their lifestyle in Japan.

Two technical interns from Vietnam said they initially had a good impression of Japan. One of them said they thought that Japanese people are generous and so he came to work in Japan but the reality was totally different.

The other technical intern said there are some good labor unions as well as good companies in Japan but most of the companies and labour unions in this program are bad.

They two interns said they were discriminated against in their work place. They said some Japanese coworkers would finish smoking their cigarettes and throw the live cigarettes butts at their face.

The complained to the police in one instance but the police called the company and their complaint was dismissed.

They said they got USD 7 per hour and they used to work every day starting from 8 am in the morning to midnight up to 24 days in a month but their official attendance record showed that they worked only eight hours a day or 17 days or sometimes even 11 days a month.

The company was cheating them out of their pay.

This meant that their monthly salary, despite all the work, came to around only USD 750 in a month.

One of the interns said that when the Japanese workers speak to them, they don’t treat them like humans and more like animals. They said the Japanese workers swore at them and used expletives only.

The Vietnamese intern said that it is better that his fellow countrymen stay in Vietnam than come and work in Japan.

The program also showed that since money is not enough people take up work in the black market which is more hazardous. The program talked about a man who had extensive burns on his back from such work.

MoLHR Minister says all will be fine

Despite all the criticism of the TTIP program the MoLHR assures that it will not happen to the Bhutanese youths who will be going to Japan under TITP program.

Lyonpo Ugyen Dorji said TITP will be monitored frequently unlike in the past. Lyonpo said the program will be different from what LEP was as the program will have government monitoring.

He said the program is much more coordinated and systematic and so the the risk of people being exploited and abused will be less, especially when the government is coordinating the program and also when this program is being implemented after the lessons learned from the LEP.

Lyonpo said the ministry is sending 25 youths in the first batch and if it does not work, they will bring them back.

Lyonpo said the ministry is going ahead with the TITP because there are more benefits from this program than the problems that might be encountered in long run.

For TITP, Lyonpo said he himself has visited Japan and he has had several rounds of discussion with the people of Japanese Embassy in New Delhi.

He said the ministry people have met the TITP authorities in Japan and met relevant ministers. “And after all these consultations, they have taken a lot of hard work and pain to come up with the guidelines,” said Lyonpo.

“We have already learned lessons from the ‘learn and earn program’ and if this program is really bad then the ministry would never go ahead with the program. I am aware about the criticism and problems associated with TITP,” said Lyonpo.

“Learning from the past lessons we are being very cautious and that is why we are only sending 25 youths,” Lyonpo added.

Lyonpo said those who are going under the TITP, they will be earning Nu 100,000 per month on an average. He said these youths are going without loans unlike LEP.

“The work they will be doing is blue-collared jobs. With blue-collared jobs, there will be challenges, especially when our youths were all pampered by their parents,” opined Lyonpo.

The 25 youths will be working as caregivers, technicians in the companies or those kinds of jobs that are available.

Lyonpo said, now the problem is, the moment they think of people to send to Japan to work, people will be tempted to think about the ‘learn and earn program’, which he said is not their fault.

He said there will be two sides, bad and good in everything and so activity will be totally bad or good.

“Under the LEP, there was good and bad about the program but on the whole, at least when the ministry started the program, it was good. People in the ministry might have made mistakes but they are not as cruel as they have made to seen as. In the past, people have accused them for sending hundreds at a go: Maybe that was a mistake,” said Lyonpo.

Lyonpo said the ministry is doing this with a good intention with whatever resources available and is really working hard to solve the issue of unemployment in the country.

Lyonpo said problems will be there and it is not only in Japan, but that there are problems in Bhutan too.

“There will not be work where there will not be any problems. There might be some companies who abuse or exploit employees but what is important is that the ministry will lessen, minimize and mitigate those risks and since this program is directly related to two governments,” assured Lyonpo

He said the Japanese government is implementing TTIP with several other countries.

“The program might have problems with some employees but those who have benefitted from this program never come to picture,” said Lyonpo.

Lyonpo said whatever the ministry is doing, is for the people.

“Those who are willing and competent and those who are prepared to face the work environment in those areas will go ahead with the opportunities.”

“I am hoping that this program really works, because this program is started with a lot of hope and optimism for the good of the people,” said Lyonpo.

He said TITP will allow Bhutanese youth to gain skills and knowledge within the period of three years. He said there is a requirement in the agricultural sectors, food processing units, construction of bridges, hospitals and hotels but Bhutan ends up bringing in more laborers from outside.

A press release stated that the program which has been designed in direct collaboration with the Japanese government will allow Bhutanese youth to pursue internships with Japanese employers to gain skills and knowledge for their employability.

It says the internship is also expected to result in the transfer of skills, technologies, and knowledge to the Bhutanese youth which will culminate in the capacity development of Bhutanese people.

“Mismatch of skills leads to un-employability,” the Minister pointed out in his keynote address. “This program will help address the problem by sending our youth to one of the most developed economies in the world like Japan where work skills are highly revered and practiced passionately. The Ministry is striving to create a gainful employment for youth through such programs.”

The youth will be placed for three years of internships in various implementing organizations in Japan with possible extension up to five years.

The employing agencies in Japan will pay the stipends to the youth based on their prevailing rates for internships. The employing agencies will also facilitate the accommodations and logistics for youth during the internship.

After the internship the youth are expected to return home to join the labour market in the similar sectors of their engagement.

The Ministry said it expects youth to bring back critical skills in filling the job vacancies at home. However, youth can also choose to work in Japan through their own choice and if they get a working visa.

The TTIP program was launched on August 26 for the Bhutanese youth to take up technical training internships in Japan. This is the outcome of the Memorandum of Cooperation signed between the Ministry and the Government of Japan in 2018.

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