Labor office recognizes overwork death of foreign intern for 1st time

A labor office in Ibaraki Prefecture has found that a Chinese trainee at a local firm died in 2008 due to overwork, marking the first recognized death from overwork of a foreign intern under a government-authorized training program.

The male trainee, Jiang Xiaodong, died of cardiac arrest aged 31 in June 2008 after working more than 100 hours of overtime in his final month, prompting his family to file a workers’ compensation claim in August 2009.

Jiang came to Japan as a trainee under the program in 2005 and was working at a plating factory of metal processing firm Fuji Denka Kogyo in Itako, Ibaraki, according to the Kashima labor standards inspection office.

[Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union] Lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki, representing the bereaved family, said Jiang had worked about 150 hours of overtime a month since his second year and generally had only two days off per month.

“There are many foreign trainees who died after being forced to work excessively, but many of the cases have been shrouded in darkness,” Ibusuki said. “The latest case (involving Jiang) is just the tip of the iceberg, and the overtime recognition came too late.”

Accused of violating the labor standard law, Fuji Denka Kogyo President Takehiko Fujioka, 67, and the company faced a summary order last month to pay a fine of 500,000 yen each.

The training program for foreigners was introduced in Japan in 1993, with a stated aim of helping enhance technological expertise and nurturing human resources in developing countries.

Foreign interns were originally exempted from Japanese labor-related laws during the training period in their first year in Japan. But with a spate of work-related troubles breaking out across the nation, the Immigrant Control and Refugee Recognition Law was revised and they became covered by labor-related laws last July provided they undertake two months of designated classroom lectures, such as those on the Japanese language.

About 200,000 foreigners stayed in Japan under the program in 2009. In the year from April 2009, 27 interns died from work accidents or illness.

According to Ibusuki, most of them were in their 20s and 30s. He said foreign interns “are abused under poor (working) conditions, under the premise of transfer of technology or international contribution. It is just like slavery.”