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Turning Technical Interns into Slave Laborers

SNA (Tokyo) — In 1993, Japan launched an initiative known as the Technical Intern Training Program whereby foreign workers, mainly from China and Vietnam, are brought into the country to work in sectors which are severely undermanned, such as agriculture and construction.

The ostensible aim of the program is for interns to gain the skills acquired in Japanese companies through the tasks they are given, and then return home and apply those skills towards the economic development of their own countries.

However, over the past decade, the program has received a considerable amount of criticism, both nationally and internationally, from those who argue that it violates human rights. For example, the 2016 Human Trafficking in Persons Report produced by the US State Department noted, “Some employers [had] confiscated trainees’ passports and other personal identity documents and control the movements of technical intern trainees to prevent their escape or communication with persons outside the program.” Similar observations have also been made by numerous journalists, politicians, and activists.

It was estimated that there are around 230,000 foreigners currently working as part of the Technical Intern Training Program, but Japan provides little legal protection to them. Many interns have complained about payment of sub-minimum wages, dangerous working conditions, illegal overtime, and more. There have also been issues relating to sexual abuses and policies by companies that have violated privacy rights.

With the Olympic and Paralympic Games coming up in 2020, the Tokyo Organising Committee announced in March 2017 that there will be an adoption of the Sustainable Sourcing Code. This includes a comprehensive protection clause for migrant workers, as Japan will need a significant number of foreign workers to fill the gaps in its workforce. However, the committee has not yet set out policies that would effectively implement the code.

Generally speaking, when it comes to labor exploitation and human rights abuses, migrant workers are seen as among the most vulnerable, having little protection, either socially or legally.

In September 2017, during a United Nations General Assembly meeting which discussed sustainable development, 37 member states, including Japan, endorsed an appeal calling for immediate progress towards eradicating human trafficking, forced labor, and modern slavery globally by 2030.

It can be argued, however, that the Technical Intern Training Program represents a violation of this very appeal.

More recently, the Abe government has outlined a new policy by which technical interns from abroad would be able to stay for an additional five years after completion of their initial five years. This is presented as a measure to tackle the severe labor shortage within the nation. However, as mentioned earlier, the supposed aim of the program is for interns to gain skills and then apply them to their home country economies. By increasing their “training” time in Japan by an additional five years, it would seem that the true objective of the Abe administration is to use these interns as low-cost slave laborers—to fill a gap in the labor market while failing to provide them decent benefits and protections.

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