Call to Abolish Japan’s Foreign Intern Program Reflects Battle for Manpower

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A government expert panel on the technical intern program holds a meeting on Monday in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo.

A government panel’s recent call to abolish the so-called technical intern training program for foreign trainees reflects fears that Japan may be left behind in the international competition for human resources if the problems with the current system are not dealt with.

A system must be created that guarantees a good working environment for foreign nationals.

“In reality, Japanese society has to rely heavily on technical interns as a labor force,” said Akihiko Tanaka, chairman of the panel and president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, after the panel’s meeting on Monday. The panel released a draft interim report during the meeting calling for the training program’s abolition.

Tanaka said the current system does not match reality and stressed the need to create a new one.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The technical intern program began in 1993 with the aim of contributing to international society through the transfer of technology to developing countries. However, the Japanese working population has rapidly shrunk due to the low birth rate and aging population, and foreign trainees now support industries for which it is difficult to recruit workers, such as agriculture and nursing care.

“Many industries cannot survive without trainees,” said an employer who accepts trainees.

Work environments have changed from the time Japan was considered an attractive place to work. A panel member said at the meeting: “Wages are improving in the countries that are sending trainees to Japan, and there is now competition for human resources with neighboring countries. Japan needs to make conscious efforts to be selected.”

Many companies view technical trainees as cheap labor to make up for worker shortages. Some trainees have run away due to low wages and unbearably poor working conditions. About 7,000 trainees went missing in 2021.

In light of the current situation, the draft interim report called for “prevention of human rights violations” to be included in the new system to be created.

The draft also stated that supervisory organizations, which oversee companies that accept technical trainees, are not functioning adequately. As it prepares its final report, the panel will discuss how to ensure that only good organizations are certified.

The interim draft also calls for a review of the regulations that restrict trainees from changing companies, a situation that is considered a hotbed of human rights violations.

Takahiro Ikawa, representative director of sewing company ISJ Enterprise Co. in Gifu which hosts interns, said: “The government acknowledging the reality of a labor shortage gives us hope that the system will be improved, but there is also anxiety about the system changing.”