Violation of foreign workers’ rights – in Singapore and Japan

Video of scuffle at Japan airport when some foreign workers were to be forceably repartriated

Ralph Hosoki / additional input from Jolovan Wham

During the late 1980s, the Japanese government was faced with a predicament.  With depleted domestic sources of labor to fill 3D (dirty, dangerous, and demanding) jobs shunned by Japanese nationals, the government contemplated ways to secure cheap and temporary foreign labor without jeopardizing its international reputation and national interests in maintaining social order through the maintenance of a “homogeneous” society.

After heated ministerial debates, the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act was revised in 1990, and with the diversification of residence status (i.e. visa) categories, there was an influx in foreign nationals entering Japan with “trainee,” “pre-college student,” “college student,” “long-term resident,” and “spouse or child of a Japanese national” visas.  Of the extant 27 residence status categories, none explicitly refer to low-skilled labor, thereby creating a façade that Japan does not recruit and/or use low-skilled foreign workers.

However, it is precisely through the use of such categories with “benign” names that refer to skilled professions, length of stay, and relationship to Japanese nationals, that the government is able to obscure the actual nature of work with nomenclature and secure de facto low-skilled foreign labor while appealing to the international community its attempts to internationalize and provide international assistance through the transfer of technical skills.

The Japanese government’s reluctance to admit that it recruits low-skilled foreign labor through the side-doors of its policies has critical consequences for the legal, social, and economic wellbeing and protection of migrants and foreign workers.  When high demand for foreign workers exists in tandem with stubborn government refusal to officially recruit low-skilled foreign labor, it should come as no surprise that labor recruitment often acquires a clandestine nature.  A case in point would be the illegal employment and/or treatment of industrial trainees and technical interns.

A training program or recruitment scheme?

The industrial training program was established in 1991, when JITCO (Japan International Training Cooperation Organization) was established under the auspices of five government ministries to oversee, streamline, and assist trainee recruitment by small and medium sized enterprises and cooperatives.  The program was further expanded in 1993 when the technical internship program was established to allow trainees completing their first year of training to change their “trainee” residence status to “designated activities” (i.e. technical interns) so that they could extend their stay in Japan for a maximum of two additional years as bona fide employees at the same company in which they received training.  In 2008, there were approximately 200,000 trainees and technical interns who either entered or continued to live and train/work in Japan  The majority of both trainees and technical interns come from China (67.6% and 79.3%, respectively), and are concentrated in the textile, food manufacturing/processing, and metalworking industries.

This combined industrial training and technical internship program opened a Pandora’s box of opportunities for unscrupulous employers to engage in exploitation because it presented ways to blur the line between apprenticeship and remunerative employment.  The relative ease of recruiting (and “hiring”) trainees and technical interns through JITCO and JITCO’s lack of resources and will to strictly monitor illegal employer behavior have transformed many originally well-meaning employers of struggling enterprises into predators for de facto cheap labor.

The vulnerable status of industrial trainees and technical interns

Although Japan’s Labor Standards Law is very powerful, it is of limited use in protecting trainees who by legal definition are not workers.  This is especially so if there is no proof of (overtime) work or if the trainees do not have the resources and knows how to seek help and advice from labor unions and local labor standards offices.  Inaccessibility to assistance is further exacerbated by the fact that companies that recruit trainees and technical interns are often located in suburban and rural areas throughout Japan.  Furthermore, employers have been reported to circumscribe their freedom by confiscating their passports and foreigner registration cards, depositing portions of their wages and stipends in inaccessible company-owned bank accounts, requiring 6- to 7-day work weeks, banning contact with individuals outside of the company, etc.  With limited access to their own personal bank accounts, menial wages, and exorbitant debts accrued through broker arrangements to secure opportunities to train and work in Japan, both trainees and technical interns sometimes live and work with anxiety in conditions that are no different from bonded labor.

Unlike trainees, technical interns enter into employee-employer contracts, and are protected by the labor standards and minimum wage laws, often making them “liabilities” for employers when demand fluctuates and business slows.  Unscrupulous employers have dismissed technical interns in mid-contract by using threats, lies, and force.  To ensure that they do not seek help or compensation, some employers have hired security companies to escort the technical interns to the airport to repatriate them to their home countries.  The forced repatriation process is often carried out very expediently, leaving the technical interns with little time and limited means to run away or seek help.  Therefore, forced repatriation often goes unnoticed by the public and government/JITCO personnel.  The video presented here contains footage from a rare incident in which a group of technical interns were able to contact a labor union to “intercept” their employer’s efforts to forcefully repatriate them at the airport.

The way forward?

Over the years, many cases involving the violation of the worker and human rights of trainees and technical interns have been reported.  Civil society groups, labor unions, and the media have built a nascent but growing awareness among both the public and government officials of the contradictions and structural deficiencies inherent in the training and technical internship programs.  Zentoitsu Workers Union (featured in this video) has been one of the highly active and influential actors in raising public and government awareness of this flawed system. Although change has been slow to materialize, in July 2009, the government acknowledged the problematic nature of the system and decided to revamp it as a whole.  The new system (to be effective as of July 1, 2010) entails the separation of the training and technical internship programs and the establishment of a “technical intern” residence status category where labor laws will be applicable to individuals after they complete a two month language and off-the-job training program at the beginning of their contract.  The maximum length of stay is still 3 years, but efforts to monitor receiving companies will be strengthened, stricter punishments will be imposed on employers who engage in illegal activities, and more efforts will be made to ensure the authenticity of contracts made between sending companies and the technical interns themselves.

Though it is still too early to conclude whether such policy changes will bring any concrete improvements to the working and livelihood situations of trainees and technical interns, some are optimistic that they will.  Others, including many civil society groups, are wary of the actions of both government and economic actors, and their struggle for justice continues as they persist in their efforts to monitor how the new system unfolds.

What about Singapore?

Unlike Japan, Singapore is unabashed about its aggressive labour import policy for low skilled migrants.  In fact, the Singapore government takes great pains to justify its need for foreign workers through an ideology that emphasises pragmatism, economic growth and competitiveness.  By narrowly defining migrant workers as highly-skilled workers, in Japan, low-skilled migrant workers are not recognized as workers and have therefore been excluded from essential protections in the workplace.  Singapore’s labour policy on the other hand, emphasises equal treatment for both local and foreign workers.

The Employment Act, for example applies equally to both locals and foreigners.  Yet, it is still not uncommon to hear of foreign workers being exploited despite this policy of equal treatment.  Low wages, coupled with 12 hour work days, seven days a week is common.  Some are even asked to sign contracts with no OT pay, annual or medical leave. How often have we heard employers complaining that local workers are choosy, fussy and unwilling to work as hard as foreign workers? The solution it seems is to import cheap migrant labour. Helping businesses cut cost with cheap labour is good for the nation since the prosperity of the nation depends on it, or so the logic goes. Somehow there seems to be a tacit assumption that it is ok to oppress and exploit foreign workers since ultimately, everyone will benefit. Such a policy does no one any favours at all, including local workers since they are being priced out of the market by easily exploited foreign workers.

These abuses continue to happen because we are sympathetic to the concerns of businesses here which depend on the exploitation of migrant labour for the prosperity of the nation as a whole.  We turn a blind eye to migrant workers here being wrongfully confined, and allowing the operations of so-called security companies to forcefully repatriate workers because the State also views them as threats to our community.

In Japan, if all migrants who are engaged in work – regardless of skill level and legal status – were to be officially recognized as bona fide workers, Japan’s powerful labor laws could do much to eliminate maltreatment and exploitation in the workplace.  However, doing so would present the burden of additional compliance with domestic and international laws, making it more difficult for the government to manage the inflow and desired return of migrant workers and their families.  Therefore, in Japan, one of the fundamental challenges of securing migrant worker rights involves the need to pressure the government into officially recognizing all migrant workers as bona fide workers.

In contrast, in Singapore, the government openly admits and encourages the recruitment of migrant workers of all skill levels. This has created resentment and led to calls for reforms by some to provide minimum wage protection for local workers and not to foreign workers. Pitting one group of exploited workers against another will only polarise the issue into them vs us. The conditions of local workers will not improve when we frame the issue in this way. However, until we can secure better protection for local workers, what chance do our foreign workers with no voting rights have?


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