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.

Chinese taking 2 different routes to Japan

The two Chinese are about the same age and both plan to improve their future prospects by living in Japan. But the similarities end there.

The pair reflect the stark differences among Chinese heading to Japan from the booming coastal areas and the poorer inland regions that have yet to be swept up in the country’s economic growth.

A Yuncai, 19, is from the latter. She lives with her parents and two sisters in one of the houses that line the mountain slopes in the Maanshan district, more than an hour’s drive from Dali in Yunnan province, southwestern China.

The farming family earns about 10,000 yuan (about 140,000 yen) a year, an amount insufficient for their medical and education fees.

Yuncai plans to work as a trainee at a Japanese farm to help her family survive.

“Even if I land a job here, I can earn only 800 yuan a month. In Japan, I will be able to earn more and acquire advanced knowledge. I will remit my earnings to my family, except for living expenses,” she said.

Jin Shaohua, 20, comes from a much different background. Born into a wealthy family, Jin grew up in the coastal city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province near Shanghai.

His reason for going to Japan? He didn’t gain admission to Suzhou University.

Instead, he went to the Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications, but his low scores denied him entry into the faculty of economics, as he desired.

His friend who was studying in Japan told Jin through the Internet, “Tokyo is convenient and beautiful.”

Unhappy at school and uncertain about his future goals, Jin decided to study Japanese for one or two years in Fukui Prefecture and then enroll at a Japanese university.

“I’m a little bit excited,” Jin said in early April at Shanghai Pudong International Airport waiting for a flight to Ishikawa Prefecture.

Yuncai’s parents were also a bit excited about sending their daughter to Japan, much to the surprise of Masaichi Tanaka, a 61-year-old farmer in Kamiita, Tokushima Prefecture, who interviewed the teen as a prospective trainee.

Tanaka visited their home in fall last year and asked the parents, “Don’t you have any anxieties about your daughter going to Japan alone?”

One of the parents replied, “We have no anxieties because Japan is a developed and safe country.”

Tanaka said he felt that Yuncai’s experience in the mountains had made her physically strong.

“Because her parents have such a (serious) manner, she must be a serious person, too,” said Tanaka, who chose Yuncai from among 20 people interviewed at a worker dispatch company in Dali.

After Yuncai graduated from a vocational school last year, she worked on the family’s farm. After being chosen as a trainee, she borrowed money to pay 40,000 yuan to the worker dispatch company, Dali Prefecture International Techno-Economic Cooperation Co., for procedural and other fees.

She underwent the company’s training sessions, which last for three to four months and can be likened to boot camp. Trainees wake up at 6:30 am. for a run and get no holidays. Between classes on Japanese and other subjects, they must follow stringent rules, such as how to fold futon mattresses and where to place their cups and socks.

If the company sends a trainee to Japan, it can receive a total of 900 yuan from the central, provincial and local governments.

China has eased its departure and screening procedures since 2004 because exports of workers have become a big source of income.

According to the Japanese Immigration Bureau, about 102,000 people came to Japan in 2008 as trainees in farming, manufacturing and other sectors. About 69,000, or nearly 70 percent, were Chinese, compared with about 28,000 in 2000.

Jin’s “training” for Japan consisted mainly of taking Japanese lessons in China.

He estimates he will need 2 million yen a year for tuition and living expenses in Japan. However, his father, who runs his own company, said, “I will pay all the money.”

Weng Danjie, also 20, left for Japan with Jin for the same reason: She failed to advance to the nursing department of a vocational school.

Weng, who met Jin at the same language school, also has an advantage in her plans.

Although her mother lives in Jiangsu province, her father is a Japanese living in Fukui Prefecture, who often travels to China on business.

Weng said she will live in her father’s house in Japan during her studies.

“If I succeeded in advancing to my favorite school (in China), I would not have decided to go to Japan,” she said.

Wei Haibo, who runs a Japanese-language school in Shanghai, said, “An increasing number of people are thinking about going abroad for studies because they failed to gain entry to their favorite universities or land good jobs.”

Thirty to 40 percent of the students in Wei’s school are considering a trip to Japan for such reasons, he said.

According to the Japan Student Services Organization, about 79,000 Chinese came to Japan in 2009 to study, accounting for 60 percent of all such students.

U.N. rights rapporteur says end foreign trainee program ‘slavery’

A visiting U.N. expert on the rights of migrants urged the government Wednesday to terminate its industrial trainee and technical intern program for workers from overseas, saying it may amount to “slavery” in some cases, fueling demand for exploitative cheap labor in possible violation of human rights.

“This program should be discontinued and replaced by an employment program,” Jorge Bustamante, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights of migrants, told reporters at the U.N. Information Center in Tokyo.

While praising some government measures to alleviate the impact of the economic crisis on the foreign population, Bustamante noted the country still faces a range of challenges, including racism, discrimination and exploitation of migrants, based on information provided by civil society.

“Racism and discrimination based on nationality are still too common in Japan, including in the workplace, in schools, in health care establishments and housing,” he said.

“Japan should adopt specific legislation on the prevention and elimination of racial discrimination, since the current general provisions included in the Constitution and existing laws are not effective in protecting foreign residents from discrimination based on race and nationality,” Bustamante said.

Since his arrival in the country on March 23 for an official inspection, Bustamante has interviewed migrants and their families, including Filipinos and Brazilians in Nagoya, and discussed the issues with ministry and agency officials.

Japanese civic groups supporting migrants said it is significant that a U.N. expert has conducted an assessment of human rights of migrants in Japan, which has yet to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

He will submit a report on his visit to the U.N. Human Rights Council to present his findings, conclusions and recommendations possibly in September or October after submitting a draft to the Japanese government.

Following a series of meetings and discussions he has held in the country, Bustamante pointed out that a number of parents of Japanese-born children or those who have lived in the country for a long time have been deported or detained due to their irregular residence status.

“In accordance with the principle of the best interest of the child, families should not be separated,” he said.

Assigned in July 2005 to the post created in 1999, Bustamante’s main responsibilities include examining ways of overcoming obstacles to the protection of migrants’ human rights.

Fewer foreign trainees at hospitals

The number of Japanese medical institutions and other entities accepting Indonesians and Filipinos training to qualify as nurses or caregivers in fiscal 2010 will fall sharply compared with the current fiscal year.

Language problems apparently proved to be an insurmountable barrier for some.

According to the Japan International Corp. of Welfare Services, only 62 entities plan to accept 142 Indonesians from April 1, the start of fiscal 2010.

In fiscal 2009, 194 entities accepted 467 Indonesians.

As for Filipinos, 82 entities plan to accept 179 workers in fiscal 2010. That compares with 444 Filipinos at 175 entities in fiscal 2009.

Personnel at hospitals and other facilities say that training foreign nationals with a limited command of Japanese is difficult and takes up too much time.

The system to accept Indonesian and Filipino would-be nurses and caregivers was introduced in fiscal 2008, with a total of 850 trainees arriving.

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.