Govt must improve foreign intern program

The revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law took effect in July, enhancing legal protection for foreign interns participating in a government-authorized training program.

However, some observers say the revision of the law merely puts off dealing with the real problems. The program is said to be occupational training in name only, with some going so far as to call it de facto slave labor.

It remains to be seen if the revisions will solve this issue. If the situation does not change, we believe it is meaningless to continue the program.

The current program was established in 1989 to provide foreign nationals with opportunities to learn advanced technology and skills in Japan, thereby becoming forces for development in their own countries.

It has accepted 50,000 to 70,000 young foreign nationals every year for training that can continue up to three years, in fields such as textiles, machinery, metal, food, construction, agriculture and fishing. Over 80 percent of the trainees are Chinese nationals.

Brutal hours, paltry wages

The program has two ways of accepting foreign interns: Companies bring over employees of their own subsidiaries in foreign countries, or organizations of small and midsize firms or agricultural groups accept interns and send them to member companies or farms for training. The overwhelming majority of problems occur in the latter segment.

Many irregularities in the program were pointed out during Diet deliberations to revise the law, such as foreign trainees working long hours and being paid below-minimum wages of about 300 yen per hour. Some trainees reportedly cannot quit the program midway through because the agencies in their countries that sent them to Japan will demand large penalty charges.

A majority of trainees are said to be unskilled laborers who only want to make money in this country.

The 31-year-old Chinese intern who died suddenly in 2008 while working at a metal plating company in Ibaraki Prefecture is a typical case. He was allegedly forced to work for low pay and to put in 100 to 150 hours of overtime every month. He was allowed only two days off per month.

A labor standards inspection office in the prefecture intends to recognize his death as the result of overwork.

In 2008, labor offices around the country instructed companies to improve labor conditions for foreign trainees in a total of 2,612 cases.

The reality is far from the program’s ideal of contributing to the international community. It seems industries that cannot hire Japanese workers have been taking advantage of it to quietly use foreign labor.

Wishful thinking

The revised law stipulates that the Labor Standards Law and the Minimum Wage Law apply to foreign trainees from their first year in the program; under the old law, they applied only from the second year. The revised law also requires industrial organizations to strengthen their instruction and supervision of member companies that accept foreign interns.

However, some of the companies using foreign interns have been ignoring labor-related regulations. Many industrial organizations and their member companies are like fraternities–can we really expect these organizations to strictly supervise their members?

Many trainees have to go home because the companies they work for suddenly go bankrupt. At the very least, the revised law should have included a measure to prohibit struggling companies from accepting interns.

The government-authorized program has become a legal loophole for hiring unskilled foreign laborers. The government must move forward with discussions on how this country should accept foreign workers in the future.

Labor standards office to rule Chinese trainee at metal plant died of overwork

A local labor standards inspection office [in Ibaraki Prefecture] is set to recognize the death of a Chinese trainee at a metal processing factory was caused by overwork, officials said.

This will be the first time that the death of a foreign vocational trainee in Japan has been recognized as a work-related accident, according to a liaison council of attorneys working on issues related to foreign trainees.

Jiang Xiaodong died of heart failure at the company residence of Fuji Denka Kogyo in Itako, Ibaraki Prefecture, in June 2008 while employed at its factory under a government-backed training program. His bereaved family filed a petition with the Kashima Labor Standards Inspection Office in August last year for compensation for a work-related accident.

The labor office has confirmed that Jiang worked up to 98 hours of overtime a month between March and May 2008. Moreover, the office has found that the company forged his payroll book based on a false time-clock card, destroyed relevant documents and failed to pay him some overtime wages.

The office then concluded that Jiang died from overwork resulting from working excessively long hours in violation of the Labor Standards Law. It has also sent an investigation document on the company’s 66-year-old president to prosecutors, accusing him of violating the Labor Standards Law.

The president denied that the victim’s death was a result of overwork. “He underwent a health check in April 2008, and we paid due attention to his health. We had him work overtime on his request. We don’t think his death was a work-related accident.”

Shoichi Ibusuki, an attorney for the bereaved family [and special guest at Tozen’s 2010 Convention], emphasized how common such cases may be, saying, “It’s difficult to file a petition for compensation for a foreign trainee’s death as a result of a work-related accident because we can’t easily contact bereaved families. The latest case is the tip of the iceberg.”

Approximately 87,000 foreign nationals have undergone vocational training in Japan under the government-backed program, some 65,700 of whom are Chinese.

Until the revised Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law came into force this month, trainees had not been recognized as workers — to whom the Labor Standards Law applies — during the first year of their training. Therefore, they were forced to work for extremely long hours at unreasonably low wages.

In fiscal 2008, a record 34 foreign vocational trainees died while they were in Japan, according to the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization. Of them, 16 died of brain or heart ailments allegedly caused by working too long — 2.5 times more than a year earlier.

Chinese intern death in Japan ‘very likely’ due to overwork

A Chinese intern employed in Japan under a government training program “very likely” died because he had been overworked, labour officials said Friday.

The 31-year-old man worked at a metal processing firm in Ibaraki prefecture, northeast of Tokyo, and died of cardiac arrest in June 2008 after working more than 100 hours overtime the month before.

The government program has long been criticized for the ease with which it can be used for labour exploitation, and lawyers said it was the first such death to be recognized as a result of overwork, but likely only the tip of the iceberg.

Japan has strict immigration rules, but some companies, especially in manufacturing, have used a loophole to bring in low-wage foreign workers on “training” schemes under the foreign assistance program.

Amid rising concern over abuses under the scheme, a government body announced last year that a record 34 workers from Asia, mainly Chinese nationals, had died in Japan in the year to March 2009 alone.

“This is a case very likely to be recognized as ‘karoshi’ (overwork death),” said a spokesman for the area labour office, adding the case was filed with prosecutors against the company Fuji Denka Kogyo and his 66-year-old boss.

Last year the Japan International Training Co-operation Organization, which oversees the nation’s training programs, said of the 34 deaths in the year to March 2009 that 16 died of heart and brain ailments, five died in workplace accidents and one committed suicide.

Some 190,000 foreigners — mainly from China, Indonesia and the Philippines — are currently believed to be in Japan on government training programs.

Lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki, a member of a legal group that has represented trainee workers in cases of alleged abuse [and special guest at Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union‘s 2010 Convention], said that the foreign trainees are being exploited by Japanese companies.

Many of the trainees work on assembly lines, mainly in the textiles, food processing and machinery sectors.

Japan has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, but it has so far rejected allowing large-scale immigration of unskilled workers.

Top managers ordered to pay for employee’s death from overwork

The operator of major restaurant chain Nihonkai Shoya and its four top managers were ordered Tuesday to pay about 78.6 million yen in damages to the parents of an employee who the court recognized as having died of overwork in 2007.

The decision by the Kyoto District Court was the first to find the top management of a major business corporation liable to pay damages in a suit involving the death from overwork of an employee, said lawyer Tadashi Matsumaru, the plaintiffs’ legal agent and a member of a group of lawyers involved in such suits.

The parents of Motoyasu Fukiage, who died at age 24 while employed at Nihonkai Shoya’s outlet in Shiga Prefecture near Kyoto, had filed a 100 million yen damages suit against Daisyo Corp. — a Tokyo-based listed firm — and its President Tatsu Taira and other managers.

Presiding Judge Shinichi Oshima said Daisyo had failed to properly take account of its employees’ working hours, noting that it set salaries under the premise that employees would work 80 hours of overtime a month, equivalent to the government criteria to designate death from overwork.

The three-judge panel also found that Fukiage died of heart disease caused by his duties, noting that he continued standing for long hours every day and suffered from huge physical strain.

Fukiage worked at a Nihonkai Shoya outlet in Shiga Prefecture after joining the company in April 2007. He died in August that year from acute heart failure while sleeping at home, after working on average 112 hours of overtime per month for a four-month period, the court found.

His death was recognized as related to work in December 2008 by the Otsu labor standards inspection office.

Founded in 1971, Daisyo operates some 980 outlets across Japan of such restaurant chains as Shoya, Nihonkai Shoya and Yaruki Chaya. Its stock is listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s first section.

After hearing the decision, Fukiage’s father Satoru, 61, told a press conference he does not want money but wants his son back.

Daisyo said it would offer condolences again over Fukiage’s death and would look into the court decision fully before deciding whether to file an appeal to a higher court.

Labour Ministry: Wages fell 3.3% in FY2009

According to a report released today by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, wages in Japan fell 3.3% to 315,311 yen per month in fiscal 2009. This is the strongest drop seen since the ministry began issuing data in 1991, while 2009 was the third consecutive year in which average wages fell in Japan according to the ministry’s data.

Basic compensation fell 1.1% to 245,278 yen while bonuses slumped 10.8% to 53,046 yen per month. Other payments such as overtime fell 7.9% to 16,987 yen.

According to the breakdown by industries, workers in the electricity and gas sectors received the highest average remuneration, at 585,439 yen per month (down 0.6% from the previous year). Coming in second were workers in the finance and insurance industry, at 467,081 yen per month (down 2.4% from the previous year). They were closely followed by workers in the telecommunications sector, who brought home an average of 460,793 yen per month (down 1.8% from the previous year).

The lowest average monthly wage was found amongst retail and wholesale workers, at 259,070 yen, down 3.8% from fiscal 2008. The largest drop, of 5.5%, was seen amongst workers in manufacturing, whose wages fell to 351,965 per month.

Foreign trainees easily exploited as bosses take advantage of system

The controversy should have heated up after last month’s ruling by the Kumamoto District Court, which found in favor of four female Chinese trainees who sued their employer and the agent that arranged for that employment. The trainees were awarded unpaid wages amounting to ¥12.8 million as well as damages to the tune of ¥4.4 million. The plaintiffs, who worked for a sewing company, said they were forced to work up to 15 hours a day with only two or three days off a month. They did not receive overtime pay.

Trainees are ostensibly in Japan to learn some sort of skill they can take back to their home country and make a living from. They are not supposed to work overtime because technically they aren’t here as employees, but no one has believed that lie for years now, and the JITCO official’s admission attests to the fact that the real reason for the trainee program is to provide Japanese businesses with cheap labor. This system has given rise to a racket involving semiprivate brokers who traffic in workers from Asia who want to come to Japan and make a lot of money in a short period of time.

The Kumamoto case wasn’t the first in which trainees allegedly have turned on their employers violently, and it wasn’t the first time somebody died as a result. Japanese courts seem to be coming around to the conclusion that these workers are being exploited unfairly. Presently, there are 13 lawsuits being heard in Japanese courts brought by representatives of disgruntled trainees, as well as three arbitration cases.

One that could attract attention involves a construction company in Kawasaki that sued some Chinese trainees who had joined a labor union so that the union could negotiate with the company for unpaid wages. The company sued for “confirmation” that it didn’t owe the trainees any money. The trainees then countersued. The lawyer for the labor union is confident that the ruling, due in May, will favor the trainees and expose the reality that they are here to work and thus deserve protection just like any other workers.

Japan Wages Slump at Near-Record Pace of 6.1% as Bonuses Slide

Japan’s wages slumped at a near- record pace in December as employers pared workers’ bonuses, an indication that consumer spending is unlikely to drive the economic recovery.

Monthly wages including overtime and bonuses slipped 6.1 percent from a year earlier to 549,259 yen ($5,056), the Labor Ministry said today in Tokyo. Paychecks slumped an unprecedented 7 percent in June.

“You have to weigh the improvements in jobs against the plunge in wages,” [Azusa] Kato, an economist at BNP Paribas in Tokyo, said before the report was released. “As long as workers’ incomes keep plummeting like this, households won’t feel the benefits of this economic recovery firsthand.”

The decline in paychecks was the 19th in a row, extending the longest losing streak since 2003. Today’s report also showed that average monthly wages slid a record 3.9 percent to 315,164 yen last year, the lowest level since the government started tracking the data 1990.

Large businesses cut winter bonuses by 15 percent to 755,628 yen, the steepest drop since the survey began in 1959, a separate report by the Japan Business Federation showed last month. The money is typically paid in December and is often equivalent to several months of pay.

Foreigners win ¥17 million for trainee abuses

The Kumamoto District Court awarded more than ¥17 million in damages Friday to four Chinese interns who were forced to work long hours for low wages in Kumamoto Prefecture.

The court ordered that the union Plaspa Apparel, which arranged the trainee work for the four, to pay ¥4.4 million and that the actual employer, a sewing agency, pay ¥12.8 million in unpaid wages.

It is the first ruling that held a job broker for foreign trainees liable for their hardships, according to lawyers representing the four interns.

The four female Chinese trainees, aged 22 to 25, engaged in sewing from early morning to late evening with only two or three days off a month after arriving in Japan in 2006, according to the court.

McDonald’s told to pay overtime to manager

The Tokyo District Court ordered McDonald’s Holdings Co. (Japan) Ltd. Monday to pay ¥7.55 million in overtime allowance and “additional pay” to a manager at one of its outlets.

Presiding Judge Iwao Saito ruled that Hiroshi Takano, 46, who manages a McDonald’s outlet in Saitama Prefecture, does not qualify as a manager under the Labor Standards Law and thus deserves overtime pay.

The law stipulates that employers must pay overtime allowances to employees who work more than eight hours a day and 40 hours a week. However, the regulation does not apply to people in managerial positions.

Saito said employees in management positions must be able to wield significant authority and receive privileged treatment, including higher pay. Takano neither played such an important role for the company nor received better pay, he said.

According to the court, the average annual salary of McDonald’s shop managers stood at ¥7.07 million in 2005. But the salaries varied, with some 10 percent of managers receiving only ¥5.79 million, a level lower than the average annual salary of assistant shop managers, based on evaluations. Assistant shop managers meanwhile qualify for overtime pay.

After Takano was promoted to shop manager in October 1999, his salary dropped because he was not allowed to claim overtime allowances. As a result, his annual wage fell by 17 percent in 2005, compared with the ¥7.59 million he earned in 1999.

The court ordered the company to pay Takano ¥7.55 million — ¥5.03 million in overtime pay and ¥2.52 million in additional pay.

“I was confident that I could win this suit, but I wonder why it took two years,” Takano said after the ruling. “I want the company to take today’s ruling sincerely. I also hope this decision will have a positive effect on other shop managers.”

The ruling could deal a major blow to McDonald’s Japan, which has some 1,700 managers at its outlets directly run by the firm, like Takano, said Ichiro Natsume, one of his lawyers.

McDonald’s issued a statement saying that it was regrettable the court did not accept its arguments and that it is considering filing an appeal.

Takano, who was hired in 1987, filed a suit in December 2005 with the district court, claiming the company should pay him about ¥5.17 million in overtime allowances and the same amount as “additional pay” to cover between December 2003 and November 2005.

The additional pay is regarded as a punitive fine to employers who break the law. During the period, he worked 60 to 80 hours of overtime a month, and he could not take any paid holidays for 63 days from Nov. 24, 2004, through Jan. 25, 2005. He also sought ¥3 million in compensation for mental suffering — a claim rejected by the court.

McDonald’s argued that Takano should be regarded as a manager because he oversaw dozens of employees and received wages commensurate with his responsibilities.

Momoyo Kamo, chairwoman of the Japan Community Union Federation, said the ruling will have an influence not only on McDonald’s shop managers but also other workers in similar situations.

“This ruling will encourage them to raise their voices,” she said.

34 foreign trainees in Japan died in FY 2008 of suspected overwork

Thirty-four foreign trainees died in Japan in fiscal 2008 through March this year, up 13 from the previous year to hit a record high, a survey by a government-linked body promoting a training program showed Monday.

The leading causes of their deaths were brain and heart diseases, which claimed the lives of 16, while five were killed in accidents at work and four in traffic accidents. Supporters of foreign trainees said they suspect those who died from brain and heart disorders actually died from overwork. As of late 2007, about 177,000 foreigners have been staying in Japan under the government’s industrial training and technical internship program.

Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer supporting foreign trainees and interns, pointed out that many trainees have been forced to work long hours for lower wages and said he suspects they had died from overwork.

Ibusuki and other supporters submitted a written inquiry to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry on Monday, asking it to investigate the causes of the trainees’ deaths and to state how the ministry will deal with the issue.

A labor ministry official said it is not clear why those trainees had developed brain and heart diseases, but expressed willingness to examine their working hours and living conditions.

Following the submission of the inquiry, three Chinese trainees complained about their working conditions at a press conference held in Tokyo.

Ding Jianhui, 35, who came to Japan in September 2006 on the training program, said he had to work overtime for 100 to 130 hours a month at his job selling scrap metal and only received 110,000 yen per month after tax.

‘‘I lived in a container that was not equipped with a bathroom and was treated as cheap labor. My back is still numb,’’ said Ding, who claims he was suddenly dismissed from work late last year.

Jiang Xiangyi, 34, said although he had been told he would be engaging in a carpentry job before he came to Japan, his actual work was dismantling and removing asbestos, which can cause lung cancer.

Jiang said he sometimes worked 26 days a month but was only paid 60,000 yen after tax. ‘‘The type of work was different from what I heard and I didn’t know about the danger of asbestos. I was cheated,’’ he said.