GIFU, Japan — Twenty-seven-year-old War Nu left her village in central Myanmar at the end of last year bound for Japan. She had borrowed nearly $3,000 to pay an agent for a job in the garments industry here, lured not only by the offer of much higher wages but also by the chance to learn new skills in a country known for its advanced technology.
She ended up simply packing garments into cardboard boxes from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. or midnight, six or even seven days a week. The basic pay, the equivalent of just $530 a month, was half what she had been promised, while her boss didn’t stop shouting at her.
“It was inhumane,” she said. “Every day I was stressed, I was anxious. I don’t know how to express it in words. I was crying.”
War Nu had come to Japan under its Technical Intern Training Program or TITP, a long-established program designed to ease the country’s chronic labor shortage while supposedly aiding countries in the region. As its name implies, it is designed to offer workers, mainly Asians, training for three to five years before sending them home. In practice, it often amounts to forced labor, according to the U.S. State Department.
Faced with a declining and rapidly aging population, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this month submitted a draft law to parliament that would let in up to 345,000 semiskilled foreign workers in the next five years. The move has sparked an intense debate both in parliament and the media, with the country’s weak and disorganized opposition parties enjoying a rare moment in the spotlight as they blast Abe’s plans as vague and ill-prepared.
In particular, many critics say Abe first needs to clean up the mess that is the intern training program, before opening the doors to hundreds of thousands of additional foreign workers.
“In the name of technical training, this program has used foreigners as cheap and disposable labor to fill the labor shortage,” said Shiori Yamao, a leader of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan. “We should revise this program design for the sake of national dignity.”
As the debate rages, Japanese media has awakened to the problems inherent in the TITP, with headlines and stories in recent weeks about “forced labor,” “hellish conditions,” sexual harassment and workers being treated like “slaves.”
Japan’s Federation of Bar Associations last month issued a report calling for the entire trainee system to be abolished. “In practice, we think it is hardly about giving training,” said lawyer Masashi Ichikawa.
The main problem, lawyers say, is that workers are not allowed to change employers as a condition of their visa: If they dare complain, they face losing their jobs and being deported.
“In a normal situation, workers have the chance to switch jobs if their conditions are not satisfactory,” Ichikawa said. But the so-called trainees “have to endure even if they face human rights violations or oppression.”
In its annual report on human trafficking, the State Department says this often amounts to forced labor and that workers pay agents thousands of dollars to land jobs in Japan, only to find themselves trapped in terrible situations.
Today, around 270,000 foreigners, many from Vietnam, China, the Philippines and Indonesia, work in Japan under the TITP program. The number of workers rose 20 percent between 2016 and 2017.
Some work in agriculture — picking strawberries in Ibaraki and lettuce in Nagano, for example — while others work in manufacturing or construction.
Gifu, a city in central Japan, is a center for the textiles industry, which increasingly relies on cheap foreign labor to remain competitive. Working at a company called King Style, War Nu said she was treated more like a slave than a trainee by her boss.
“Every day the abusive language wouldn’t stop, and I wasn’t even allowed to talk to my friends,” she said. “If I didn’t obey what he said, he would say, ‘Myanmarese are no good, they are bad,’ and he threatened to send me back to Myanmar. I was very scared, but I endured.”
She and four other women shared two rooms above the factory, with barely enough time to eat and sleep. “It was inhumane,” she said.
The Washington Post interviewed eight other women in Gifu who told similar stories of employers who paid less than they had promised, made them work longer hours than they expected and often gave them no training.
Both the State Department and Human Rights Watch say workers often borrow large sums of money to land jobs, but end up working long hours at below the minimum wage. Many work in dangerous or unhygienic conditions and some face heavy “fines” if they fail to stay for the duration of their contracts.
“Sexual abuse and rules that violate privacy — for example, prohibitions on owning a cellphone or having romantic relationships — are also significant problems,” Human Rights Watch said.
Such is the abuse inherent in the system that many workers abscond: Around 7,000 effectively vanished last year, and 4,300 more fled their jobs in the first six months of this year, many ending up underground as undocumented workers.
Realizing the scheme was giving the country a bad name, Japan revised the trainee law in 2017 to strengthen oversight of companies that may be breaking the rules, and established a new Organization for Technical Intern Training to supervise the scheme.
Even before the law took effect, an investigation by the Labor Ministry in 2017 found that employers were breaking the rules at more than 4,000 locations — more than 70 percent of those investigated — through long hours, inadequate safety standards or low pay.
Kenichi Tatezaki, an OTIT spokesman, said that in the future companies found breaking the rules could face having their permission to employ foreign workers withdrawn. So far, just one company has had permits withdrawn, but he said other investigations are underway.
Nevertheless, activists say little has changed at the ground level.
“Japanese companies don’t get penalized,” said Myint Swe, the president of the Federation of Workers’ Unions of the Burmese Citizen. “That’s discrimination.”
Experts say the program simply reinforces stereotypes of foreigners as cheap labor rather than members of society and of absconders as criminals rather than victims of forced labor. Such stereotypes are often played up in the media and a controversial television show dramatizing the work of immigration officers called “At the Moment of Deportation.”
The program is also fundamentally dishonest, experts say, meant to lure foreigners under false pretenses as a source of cheap labor while offering little in return. As a result, it was developing a bad reputation in other Asian countries.
As China, Taiwan and South Korea also face aging populations, they too will need more and more foreign workers in the years ahead. Japan’s government knows it has to be more competitive if it wants to attract the best foreign workers, which is why Abe has finally decided to ease restrictions and introduce new visas for “semiskilled” workers.
“Until now, the government had been hoping this program would provide enough labor, but finally they realized they can’t lie anymore,” said Yoshihito Kawakami, a lawyer who defends exploited workers.
With the help of Myint Swe and JAM — the Japanese Association of Metal, Machinery, and Manufacturing Workers, an influential labor union — War Nu was able to leave her employer and keep her visa, finding work in a different garment factory in Gifu where conditions are much better, and where she and her friends are much happier.
Takeyuki Hara, a lawyer at the Olympia Law Firm representing King Style, said the company acknowledged there had been violations of labor standards in the form of unpaid wages. It had been in talks with the Burmese labor union, he said.
But Myint Swe said the problems run far deeper than one company.
“This system is wrong. There are many abuses,” he said. The government could change it but doesn’t “because there are people who want to use workers cheaply like slaves and are only thinking about their own benefits.”