Two legislations related to the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP), under which foreign workers from developing countries learn skills in Japan, were passed on Nov. 17 at a session of the House of Councillors Committee on Judicial Affairs with a majority vote by the ruling and opposition parties. One legislation is a bill to normalize the TITP and another to revise the Immigration Control and Refugee-Recognition Law to add “nursing” as a visa status. The two bills will be passed at an Upper House plenary session on Nov. 18. The new laws, expected to be enacted within one year after promulgation, will authorize the government to review the TITP, which has been criticized as forcing foreign workers to engage in simple work at low wages, and to add “nursing” as one of the visa statuses of TITP trainees. There is, however, a remaining issue of how Japan should treat foreign workers as the country is rapidly aging.
“There is a misunderstanding that the purpose of the TITP is to secure labor force,” said Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda at a session of the Upper House Committee on Judicial Affairs held on Nov. 1. “We need to build a new framework that can directly regulate trainee-receiving companies so as to protect trainees,” Kaneda added, emphasizing the significance of the proposed bills.
The TITP was introduced in 1993. Its purpose was for Japan to make international contributions by transferring Japan’s skills and technology overseas under the TITP. Trainees receive one-year training first and move on to a two-year technical internship next. However, the Labor Standards Law and other labor-related laws are not applied to trainees during the one-year training period and they are treated as low-wage workers. As a result, a revised Immigration law was enacted in July 2010 so that labor-related laws could be applied to trainees.
The number of trainees increases every year. As of the end of June this year, there were a total of 210,893 trainees, including 85,120 from China, topping all other countries, followed by 71,983 from Vietnam and 26,000 from the Philippines. The number of illegal practices and human rights violations against trainees has also increased. According to the Justice Ministry, in 2015, a total of 273 supervising organizations (business cooperative associations and chambers of commerce and industry) and receiving companies, up 32 from the previous year, were involved in illegal activities, such as failing to pay wages. Investigations by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare (MHLW) also identified 3,695 receiving organizations, up 718 from the previous year, as involved in illegal practices such as long-working hours.
In August, the Gifu Labor Standards Office identified an incident as a case of death from overwork, in which a Filipino male trainee working at a foundry company in Gifu Prefecture died in April 2014. “They say the TITP is intended to make international contributions, but it’s a fabrication,” said Ippei Torii, representative of “Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan,” an NPO that supports foreign trainees. “These unveiled illegal practices are the tip of an iceberg,” he added. The international community is also critical about the TITP. In 2014, the UN Human Rights Committee announced that “Japan should seriously consider establishing a new system that focuses on nurturing trainees’ ability, instead of securing law-wage labor force.”
In response, the government drafted the latest bill to normalize the TITP. Under a new law, the government will establish “Foreign Trainees Technical Internship Organization,” a corporation authorized by both the Justice Ministry and the MHLW. The new organization will be authorized to approve technical internship plans made by receiving organizations and to conduct on-site inspections. The new law will stipulate penal regulations against human rights violations. “The new law will make relevant organizations adhere to the TITP’s purpose of international contributions,” said a Justice Ministry official. “Receiving organizations with good records could be allowed to extend technical internship to a period of up to five years as an incentive,” explained the official. However, trainees will not be allowed in principle to change their workplace for the first three years. This remains unchanged. Meanwhile, sending organizations in developing countries also have illegal practices, such as collecting “deposit money” from trainees. “Given the official purpose of acquiring skills under the TITP, it is inappropriate to change receiving organizations, but in reality, trainees are treated as mere law-wage workers engaged in simple work,” said Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer familiar with the TITP. He went on, “Unless trainees have a free hand to change their workplaces, they are just subordinate to receiving organizations.” The lawyer emphasized, “The government must seriously consider creating a new system for receiving trainees as workers, not as trainees.”