Interview with Lila Abiko

The U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2011 mentioned that “in November 2010, the Labor Standards Office determined that a 31-year-old Chinese trainee officially died due to overwork; although he had worked over 80 hours per week for 12 months preceding his death without full compensation, the company received only a $6,000 fine as punishment and no individual was sentenced to imprisonment or otherwise held criminally responsible for his death.” The Chinese man who died was named Jiang Xiao Dong.

I wanted to learn more about the foreign trainee program (Technical Intern Training Program) in Japan, which has been repeatedly criticised in the annual TIP reports, so I spoke with the lawyer to took Jiang Xiao Dong’s case to court – Lila Abiko.

There are ‘sending organisations’ in foreign countries who recruit workers who are then sent either to ‘primary accepting organisations’ (worker dispatch agencies) or ‘secondary accepting organisations’ (the companies they will work for). The Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO) is deeply involved in this program and supervising accepting organisations.

This seems like a normal framework for legitimate and profitable business. What could motivate the participants to become involved in labour exploitation?

Who are JICTO and what do they do?

“JITCO promotes the foreign trainee program overseas, giving lectures and introducing the system,” says Ms. Abiko. “They make some documents, such as manuals on safety and rules which are needed by accepting companies. They do some monitoring, but have no regulatory powers, so they’re just checking and reporting.”

“Five ministries contributed to create a budget for JITCO. But the government has been cutting the budget. On the other hand, JITCO is collecting a membership fee from primary accepting organisations. It looks like a public organisation, but in reality it’s a private organisation providing a service for money.”

What is the role of the sending organisations?

They’re typically overseas employment agencies who recruit interns and send them to accepting organisations in Japan. “There are sending organisations taking deposit money from the interns when they’re coming to Japan. When interns are claiming for their rights, the sending organisations pressure their families in their homeland sometimes and the primary accepting organisations pressure the trainees and interns.”

Before the change to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act in July 2010, sending organisations could take deposit money from trainees and interns, but that is now prohibited by Japanese law. But does this make an impact on how overseas firms conduct their business? According to Ms. Abiko, “there’s no effective measure to check that, but at least it was written in that law. We’ve heard of a lot of violations after the change. Everybody’s saying ‘we’ll see how it goes’ – not many people understand that the situation hasn’t really changed.”

What is the role of the primary accepting organisations?

Primary accepting organisations are staffing agencies which specialise in the employment placement of temporary workers. Prior to the change in the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act in July 2010, trainees were not considered to be workers, so primary accepting organisations didn’t need a license to perform their service. Since the law changed, a special type of staffing license is required and some of the smaller primary accepting organisations didn’t manage to get one. “Some say the bad ones have disappeared from the market. Since they need to get the visa for the trainees and interns from the Ministry of Justice, they have to prove that they have a license.”

Who are the secondary accepting organisations?

These are companies of all sizes across a range of industries. In 2009, 50,064 new foreign trainees were accepted into Japan.
Textiles 10,987
Food Processing 9,398
Metal Manufacturing 3,775
Agriculture 6,717
Electronics 2,244
Construction 3,240
Metal (mining, smelting) 2,813
Other 10,890

Jiang Xiao Dong worked for a metal processing company called Fuji Denka Kogyo. “Interns can be found where the car industry is present. They’re in a lot of industries where the availability of Japanese labour is insufficient.”

Who is responsible for regulating the activities of parties involved in the foreign trainee program?

On the Japanese side, “the Labour Standards Office has regulatory power. Secondary accepting organisations employ staff who are under the labour regulations, but primary accepting organisations are not hiring these workers, [so the Labour Standards Law doesn’t cover their relationship with the interns]. It’s hard for us to make a civil suit against primary accepting organisations because there’s no contract between them and foreign interns.”

Who is supposed to monitor the overseas sending organisations? It seems that responsibility is laid on the governments of their host countries.

Have there been any recommendations for changes to the system?

“Korea has a similar system for foreign workers, but it’s based on bilateral agreements.” This means that, for example, the Vietnamese government may have one of their agencies recruiting for these programs, so there isn’t much room for third party brokers. But in the case of the Japanese system, this duty is left to private organisations rather than governmental organisations. “I think that is making the situation worse,” says Ms. Abiko.

Has anyone proposed switching to a Korean-style system? “The Japanese Federation of Bar Associations released a statement in April (2011) about abolishing this system.” The Japanese government’s response was to say ‘we’ll see how it goes under the 2010 amendment of the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Act’.

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