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Unscrupulous Japanese Companies Seizing Foreign Workers’ Passports

SNA (Tokyo) — An immigration-focused law firm in Yokohama is refusing to return the personal documents, including passport, college transcript, and college graduation certificate, of a 30-year-old Filipino woman because of a contract she signed for her employment in Japan. Her lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki and NPO Posse representative Makoto Iwahashi even liken her situation to “forced labor,” the potent term currently riling Japan-South Korea relations.

The woman from the Philippines, whose identity remains anonymous, filed a lawsuit last week in Yokohama demanding the return of her personal belongings, compensation for mental suffering and for the time she was not able to work. Though both her lawyer and NPO Posse (which aims to improve working conditions in Japan) repeatedly tried negotiating and bargaining with the company, but to no avail.

The company, Advanceconsul Immigration Lawyer Office, is actually listed as a registered support organization, and is therefore supposed to aid foreign workers when problems like this happen. But as Makoto Iwahashi puts it, “the same company that is supposed to assist these foreign workers is the same one that is taking away their passports.”

The woman can speak Japanese, but she cannot read, and so when she was presented with an employment contract in Japanese, she didn’t understand what it said. Little did she suspect that when she signed it that one stipulation was the company could keep her passport and that they could dictate how she used it. When her visa was renewed, she thought her documents would be returned. However, on the basis that she might “run away,” the company kept control of her documents.

Aside from her personal documents being withheld, the job itself was of a lower quality than she had been led to believe. In fact, she was only being paid ¥100,000 (about US$912) per month. She wanted to find a job so that she could “survive,” but her boss still refused to return her documents.

“I felt so worried, I felt so uneasy,” She commented in a prerecorded video broadcast at a press conference. “I just don’t know what to do. I’m afraid.”

Although her lawyer Ibusuki noted that this is probably only the second case in Japan where a worker was demanding their passport back, there are hundreds of cases that never get taken to the courts. Iwahashi of NPO Posse adds, “The problem is, it’s always unreported.”

Currently, there is no law that directly prohibits a company from keeping a foreign worker’s passport, though there is a non-binding guideline from the Ministry of Labor. Some employers can take advantage of this loophole by forcing vulnerable foreign workers into underpaid and overworked jobs.

At the Extraordinary Diet Session at the end of 2018, the Abe government aimed to increase the number of foreign workers coming to Japan by amending the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act of 1951 and to create new working visa categories. The lawyer Ibusuki believes that these legal changes should have been accompanied by an improvement in the rights of foreign workers because “most politicians are not interested in this issue.”

Of all the people who have come to Ibusuki for legal help, he says, “around 70% of them had their passports taken away.” Some vicious companies do not have any desire to respect the rights of foreign workers or even Japanese workers. “They just want to use the cheap labor,” he concludes.

By taking away passports, employers are taking away foreign workers’ ability to get another job, or even to leave the country. People like the Filipino woman must continue to work for a company that holds them hostage. “These companies all know,” Iwahashi says. “They are doing this intentionally and deliberately.”

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