Expert panel meets to discuss problems with Japan’s technical trainee program for foreign nationals

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Panel chairman Akihiko Tanaka, second from left, addresses other panel members at the Justice Ministry on Wednesday.

An expert panel has held its first meeting to review a technical internship program for foreign nationals in Japan, including whether the program should be abolished or be reorganized.

The program is meant to foster human resources in developing countries, but critics have said it is being used as a way to secure manpower in industries with severe working environments. The panel, which held its first meeting at the Justice Ministry on Wednesday, is scheduled to compile an interim report around next spring and a final report around autumn, after interviewing related organizations.

The technical internship program started in 1993 as part of efforts to contribute to international society by transferring Japanese technology to developing countries. It allows foreign trainees to work for up to five years in 86 occupations, including construction and food manufacturing.

After completing their training in Japan, participants are supposed to return to their home countries. As of the end of June, about 320,000 foreigners were staying in Japan under the program, accounting for 10% of the about 2.96 million foreign residents overall.

However, low wages and poor working environments have been revealed, leading to accusations that the program’s stated purpose is at odds with the actual situation. Many trainees have disappeared — about 7,000 last year alone.

In response to this situation, then Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa held study sessions starting in February at the Justice Ministry. On Nov. 22, a ministerial meeting held to discuss the acceptance of and coexistence with foreign personnel decided to establish the expert panel.

In addition to the technical internship program, the panel will also review a “specified skilled workers” program that was introduced in 2019 and enables foreigners to work in short-staffed businesses.

A draft on themes for discussion was presented at the Wednesday meeting of the expert panel, and it was proposed that panel members examine whether the trainee program should be abolished or reorganized. There were no dissenting opinions to this approach.

The panel will also consider whether the technical internship program should be integrated with the specified skilled workers program. Another topic is expected to be how supervisory bodies should monitor the companies where trainees work.

“It’s clear there’s a discrepancy between the purpose of the training program and the actual situation,” a panel member said during the meeting. “There are structural problems that are leading to human rights violations.”

Another member said, “The program does also support [Japan’s] contributions to international society,” in reference to the trainees being able to improve their skills in Japan.

Panel chair Akihiko Tanaka, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, said, “We want to hold thorough discussions and make constructive proposals to the government.”