Reforms needed to improve technical intern program

The poor working conditions of foreign trainees in Japan’s so-called technical intern program have long been a problem. The current situation in which these interns are treated as cheap labor to make up for worker shortages cannot be left unaddressed. The situation must be corrected as soon as possible.

The government has decided to set up an expert panel to review the program in autumn at the earliest.

The technical intern residence status enables foreign trainees to work in Japan. As of the end of last year, about 280,000 such interns were residing in Japan.

The program, which began in 1993 as an initiative to contribute to the international community, is aimed at equipping foreign interns with skills in Japan that they can take back to their home countries and utilize. In reality, however, the program has become a means of supplying low-wage labor to industries such as agriculture and nursing care that struggle to attract Japanese workers.

The gap between the intended goal and the actual situation has widened. A review of the system is warranted.

Last year, there were approximately 6,500 cases of legal violations, including nonpayment of overtime wages and excessive working hours, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The Immigration Services Agency has also confirmed serious human rights violations, including assault and confinement.

In many cases, interns come to Japan after paying huge fees to mediation agents in their home countries and incurring debts. Because the system does not permit trainees to change companies, many abscond. About 7,000 trainees disappeared last year.

There have also been many cases of theft by runaway interns who stay illegally in Japan.

Japan’s labor shortage is expected to continue in the future due to the declining birth rate and aging population. A system must be put in place to facilitate the smooth acceptance of motivated foreign nationals and ensure their stable employment.

Supervisory organizations licensed by the government are supposed to check up on the situations of interns, but they are not performing their function adequately. In the city of Okayama, an organization that failed to properly respond to a complaint by a Vietnamese trainee who claimed to have been assaulted had its license revoked.

The government needs to take measures such as intensifying its monitoring of lax supervisory organizations. The government should also consider strengthening penalties to shut down organizations that continue to cause problems.

It is also important to make it easier for trainees to switch to the “specified skilled worker” residence status that was newly established in 2019. Support for the acquisition of skills, knowledge and Japanese language proficiency should also be enhanced.

Under the “specified skilled worker” program, companies that accept foreign nationals are required to hire them as regular employees and pay them wages equivalent to those of Japanese nationals. For technical trainees, improvements must be made in wages, working hours and other aspects of their treatment.

The practice of companies forcing foreigners to work for low wages is not internationally accepted. If such practices continue, Japan will be criticized by the rest of the world, and Japanese industries will not be able to survive.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 20, 2022)