'Black companies' exploiting foreign trainees
“Sure, I’ll introduce you to as many of my trainees as you like!”
The factory owner was all enthusiasm when journalist Tomohiko Suzuki, on assignment for Sapio (September), contacted him. Suzuki was investigating the “black corporations” much in the news of late – companies that illegally underpay and overwork their employees in shockingly blatant defiance of the most elementary labor standards. Though Japanese workers reportedly suffer abundant abuse of this kind, especially vulnerable are the foreign “trainees,” some 50,000 of them as of 2011, who are in Japan supposedly to acquire skills they can take home to speed their own countries’ economic growth.
Yes, Suzuki’s contact agreed, the situation is awful – not, however, he insisted, at “his” establishment, a small clothing maker some three hours by car out of Osaka. (We’ll call him Kato for convenience.)
Kato is a former yakuza executive and proud of it. It taught him the importance of family ties, he said. “My trainees want to do lots of overtime but I say, ‘Don’t force yourselves.’ I give them one day off a month.”
One day off a month?
The three Chinese trainees Suzuki meets work at sewing machines and show no sign of discontent. Presumably the language barrier precludes in-depth questioning. The dorms look neat and clean.
“In the evening we go to a Chinese restaurant for a little party. Sometimes we go to an amusement park. The overtime I pay is strictly regulation. I have nothing to feel guilty about.”
Suzuki is not so sure. Kato, open as ever, lays out his payroll records. They show him paying on average 287 yen for overtime, far below the minimum wage of 652 to 850 yen an hour. Listen, he says when Suzuki questions him – “at some factories they work their employees from 8 in the morning until 6 the next morning, giving them all of two hours’ sleep. We’re better than that.”
That seems to be true, but it’s not saying much.
The program allows for a three-year stay in Japan. The first year is for classroom training and the following two, for those who pass the requisite exam, are for hands-on work experience. The abuses that have crept into a system designed for a humanitarian spreading of skills and wealth can be inferred from the pride Kato takes in the conditions – inadequate by any objective Japanese standard – at his operation. Suzuki says amendments in 2009 to laws governing the program in theory made the minimum wage applicable to the trainees but in fact changed little.
The fact seems to be that the weakest members of any labor force, Japanese or foreign, are easy for employers to exploit regardless of the law – the Japanese because they hesitate to quit, knowing how hard better jobs are to find in this still-struggling economy; and foreigners because, not knowing their way around the unfamiliar culture and often not speaking the language, they tend to be helpless against abuses that at worst include, besides hard work and low pay, insults, corporal punishment and the withholding of pay altogether.