Japan’s dirty little secret

HIROSHIMA, Japan – Six young Chinese women arrived in this historic
city three summers ago, among the tens of thousands of apprentices brought to Japan
each year on the promise of job training, good pay and a chance at a better
life back home.

Instead, the women say, they were
subjected to 16-hour workdays assembling cell phones at below the minimum wage,
with little training of any sort, all under the auspices of a government-approved
“foreign trainee” programmeme that critics call industrial Japan’s dirty secret.

“My head hurt, my throat stung,”
said Zhang Yuwei, 23, who operated a machine that printed cell-phone keypads,
battling fumes that she said made the air so noxious that managers would tell
Japanese employees to avoid her work area.
Zhang says she was let go in June after her employer found that she and five
compatriots had complained to a social worker about their work conditions. A
Japanese lawyer is now helping the group sue their former employer, seeking
back pay and damages totaling $207,000.

Critics say foreign trainees have
become an exploited source of cheap labour in a country with one of the world’s
most rapidly aging populations and lowest birthrates. All but closed to
immigration, Japan faces an acute labour shortage, especially for jobs at the
country’s hardscrabble farms or small family-run factories.

“The mistreatment of trainees
appears to be widespread,” said Shoichi Ibusuki, a human rights lawyer based in
Tokyo.
From across Asia, about 190,000 trainees – migrant workers in their late teens
to early 30s – now toil in factories and farms in Japan. They have been brought
to the country, in theory, to learn technical expertise under an international
aid programme started by the Japanese government in the 1990s.

For businesses, the government-sponsored
trainee programme has offered a loophole to hiring foreign workers. But with
little legal protection, the indentured work force is exposed to substandard,
sometimes even deadly, working conditions, critics say.

Government records show that at
least 127 trainees have died since 2005 – or one of about every 2,600 trainees,
which experts say is a high death rate for young people who must pass stringent
physicals to enter the programme. Many deaths involved strokes or heart failure
that worker rights groups attribute to the strain of excessive labour.

The Justice Ministry found more
than 400 cases of mistreatment of trainees at companies across Japan in 2009,
including failing to pay legal wages and exposing trainees to dangerous work
conditions. This month, labour inspectors in central Japan ruled that a
31-year-old Chinese trainee, Jiang Xiaodong, had died from heart failure
induced by overwork.

Under pressure by human rights
groups and a string of court cases, the Japanese government has begun to
address some of the programme’s worst abuses. The United Nations has urged
Japan to scrap it altogether.

After one year of training, during
which the migrant workers receive subsistence pay below the minimum wage,
trainees are allowed to work for an additional two years in their area of
expertise at legal wage levels. Interviews with labour experts and a dozen
trainees indicate that the foreign workers seldom achieve those pay rates.
On paper, the promised pay still sounds alluring to the migrant workers. Many
are from rural China, where per-capita disposable income can be as low as $750
a year. To secure a spot in the programme, would-be trainees pay many times
that amount in fees and deposits to local brokers, sometimes putting up their
homes as collateral – which can be confiscated if trainees quit early or cause
trouble.

The Japan International Training
Cooperation Organization, or Jitco, which operates the programme, said that it
was aware some companies had abused the system and that it was taking steps to
crack down on the worst cases. The organization intends to ensure that
“trainees receive legal protection, and that cases of fraud are eliminated,”
Jitco said in a written response to questions.

Zhang says she paid $8,860 to a
broker in her native Hebei province for a spot in the programme. She was
assigned to a workshop run by Modex-Alpha, which assembles cell phones sold by
Sharp and other electronics makers. Zhang said her employer demanded her
passport and housed her in a cramped apartment with no heat, alongside five
other trainees.

In her first year, Zhang worked
eight-hour days and received $660 a month after various deductions, according
to her court filing – about $3.77 an hour, or less than half the minimum wage
level in Hiroshima. Moreover, all but $170 a month was forcibly withheld by the
company as savings and paid out only after Zhang pushed the company for the
full amount, she said.

In her second year, her monthly wage
rose to about $1,510 – or $7.91 an hour, according to her filing. That was
still lower than the $8.56 minimum wage for the electronics industry in
Hiroshima. And her employers withheld all but $836 a month for her accommodations
and other expenses, according to her filing.

And as her wages went up, so did
her hours, she said, to as many as 16 a day, five to six days a week.

Modex-Alpha declined to comment on
Zhang’s account, citing her lawsuit against the company.

As part of the government’s effort
to clean up the programme, beginning July 1, minimum wage and other labour
protections have for the first time been applied to first-year workers. The
government has also banned employers from confiscating trainees’ passports.

Experts say it will be hard to change
the programme’s culture.

Economic strains are also a factor.
Although big companies like Toyota and Mazda have moved much of their
manufacturing to China to take advantage of low wages there, smaller businesses
have found that impossible – and yet are still pressured to drive down costs.

“If these businesses hired Japanese
workers, they would have to pay,” said Kimihiro Komatsu, a labour consultant in
Hiroshima. “But trainees work for a bare minimum. Japan can’t afford to stop.”

For almost three years, Catherine
Lopez, 28, a trainee from Cebu, the Philippines, has worked up to 14 hours a
day, sometimes six days a week, welding parts at a Hiroshima-based supplier for
the Japanese automaker Mazda. She receives as little as $1,574 a month, or
$7.91 an hour – below the $8.83 minimum wage for auto workers in Hiroshima.

Lopez says Japanese managers at the
supplier, Kajiyama Tekko, routinely hurl verbal abuses at her cohort of six
trainees, telling them to follow orders or “swim back to the Philippines.”

“We came to Japan because we want
to learn advanced technology,” Lopez said.

Yukari Takise, a manager at
Kajiyama Tekko, denied the claims.

“If they don’t like it here,” she
said, “they can go home.”

But after inquiries by a reporter
for The New York Times, a company that organizes the trainee programme in
Hiroshima, Ateta Japan, said it had advised Kajiyama Tekko to recalculate the
wages it pays foreign trainees and ordered it to grant the vacation days owed
to the trainees.

“They may have pushed the trainees too
hard,” said Hideki Matsunishi, Ateta’s president. “But you must also feel
sympathy for the companies, who are all struggling in this economy.”

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