In May 2023, an expert panel submitted a mid-term report to the Minister of Justice in Japan proposing to abolish the country’s Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). It is hoped the report will provide a starting point for Japan to change its conservative attitude toward foreign workers.
Given Japan’s growing demand, the number of foreign workers hit a record high of 1.8 million people in 2022. Yet media reports warn that Japan has started losing its appeal for foreign workers due to its low wages, harsh working conditions and the language barrier.
TITP trainee — a status of residence for low-skilled foreign workers — was the second largest category of foreigners in Japan with 324,940 people (10.6 per cent of total foreign residents) in 2022. Most of them come from Asian countries such as Vietnam, China and the Philippines.
Since its introduction in 1993, the TITP has been criticised both domestically and globally. Despite its aim to foster the development of trainees through on-the-job training, the TITP opened a side door for employers to secure cheap labour. The program has been a hotbed of labour problems, including violations of Japan’s Labour Standards Law and the physical and psychological abuse of trainees. As of 2018, nearly 3000 TITP trainees escaped from their workplaces. Two-thirds of trainees were being forced to work for below minimum wage.
Given such problems, the panel proposed that the government replace the TITP with a new program that redefines foreign workers not only trainees but also labourers essential to Japan’s workforce.
The panel emphasised the importance of creating an environment in which foreign workers can work in Japan in the mid- and long-term. Under the current system, TITP trainees can stay in Japan for up to five years.
Achieving the Specified Skilled Workers resident status to extend the stay for another five years is difficult for many TITP trainees.
Aiming to protect the trainees and their basic rights, the panel also proposed to ease the restriction on switching jobs in Japan. TITP trainees have been prohibited from job switching, which often prevents them from escaping from human rights violations in workplaces.
Still, some criticise these proposals as superficial because the program’s main purpose — the ‘capacity development’ of trainees — will remain intact. Abolishing the TITP is not a remedy in itself, but merely a first step toward reform.
From an institutional perspective, Japan must overhaul the function and responsibility of key stakeholders involved in the process of receiving foreign workers.
Supervising organisations in Japan currently coordinate with sending organisations in partner countries to dispatch TITP trainees to receiving companies. But some supervising organisations receive illegal kickbacks from sending organisations when they receive trainees. These sending organisations eventually place a heavy financial burden on to the trainees. The government should crack down on such wrongdoing by utilising existing public organisations, like the Organization for Technical Intern Training and the Japan International Trainee and Skilled Worker Cooperation Organization, to monitor stakeholders.
To enhance the monitoring system, Japan must also collect statistical data on foreign workers properly. The methodology for the data collection is currently confined to brief reports from receiving companies and the details of the working environment in the companies are a mystery.
The government should also collaborate with partner countries to improve the transparency of the program. Sending organisations and brokers in partner countries often charge trainees expensive margins before they start the program in Japan. Demonstrating the interest and commitment of the government to welcome foreign workers — for example, by concluding a memorandum of understanding with partner countries — will help mitigate these problems.
But Japan’s biggest challenge will be transforming people’s understanding of foreign workers. The number of foreign workers in Japan is steadily increasing. They sometimes acquire Japanese nationality through means like naturalisation. Although they are already a part of Japanese society, many citizens still think that foreigners are just temporary visitors to the country. It seems that this perception of otherness diverts the attention of the people from the challenges of foreign workers.
Attracting foreign workers is not an act of kindness, but an imperative for Japan. The country’s working-age population — which was 74 million in February 2023 — is estimated to fall below 70 million in 2030 and around 50 million in 2050. It has already become a challenge for some domestic industries like agriculture to secure a sufficient number of workers.
If Japan fails to improve working conditions for foreign workers, more foreigners will soon choose another destination. It will trap Japan in a vicious cycle, where the workforce shortage will further overload foreign workers already working in Japan.
In this sense, the ongoing debate about the TITP is an opportunity to expose these challenges. Japan must confront these challenges head on in a way that enables it to rethink the essential question of how it envisages itself together with foreign workers.
Yusaku Yoshikawa is Aid Consultant at JIN Corporation. Source: East Asia Forum