Japan has been under increasing domestic and international criticism for the rampant exploitation of its foreign trainee program workforce. The government began the program 23 years ago aiming to give people from developing countries the opportunity to learn new skills. However, in face of a shortage of workers in this fast-aging country and the stagnant economy, companies have abused this program to fulfill their labor needs.
Companies have reportedly employed these foreign workers as trainees and used them as cheap labor in manufacturing, processing, and other labor-intensive sectors. Violations include underpayment, unsafe working conditions, and excessive working hours, which in many cases led to death by overwork. Many workers reportedly are forced to work several hundreds of hours a month in overtime. In addition, the employees tend to under-report their labor practices since such practices are in violation of Japan’s labor law. The concerning problem of foreign workers’ labor conditions in Japan surfaced quite recently thanks to improvements in data collection and a new law aiming to regulate overtime.
A just-released inspection survey by the labor ministry in 5,173 workplaces across the country, found 3,695 workplaces in breach of labor standards in 2015, an increase of 24% from the previous year. A recent court ruling on the death of a 27-year-old Pilipino worker, who was working 78.5 to 122.5 hours of overtime a month, was confirmed as death by overwork. It marked the first documented case of a migrant worker’s death by overwork.
This year, Japan has hosted a record 210,000 foreign trainees, and the number is expected to increase as the government seeks to accept additional workers to revive the economy. Though the overall threat of working conditions in Japan is low, excessive overtime in the labor-intensive sector poses serious risks to working conditions that could hurt the reputation of companies sourcing from suppliers with low labor standards.