The government bill that would allow foreign trainees to start working as caregivers — approved by the Lower House this week and set to get Diet approval during the current legislative session — fails to address the inherent contradiction that a scheme designed to provide technical training for interns from overseas is effectively being used to supply cheap labor to make up for the domestic shortage of manpower. The state-sponsored Technical Intern Training Program has been widely criticized as a hotbed of labor abuses, including overworking and underpaying trainees. It is not the proper way to deal with the staff shortage in the nursing care sector.

The legislation to revamp the foreign trainee program will add nursing care for elderly people to the 74 types of jobs in which the trainees are currently allowed to work for up to three years. In response to the criticism of abusive working conditions for trainees, the bill will create a new oversight body to watch over wrongdoing by employers. It will be empowered to conduct on-site inspection of businesses that hire trainees and organizations that accept and dispatch interns to firms. The maximum term of the apprenticeship will be extended to five years for employers found to observe the highest labor standards.

The program, under which some 210,000 foreign trainees were working in companies and farms across the country as of the end of June, was introduced in 1993 for the purpose of having interns from developing countries acquire technical skills and contribute to the economic development of their country when they return home. The government explains that opening the doors for trainees to work as caregivers is meant to respond to the growing needs of Asian countries whose population is similarly rapidly aging.

Such an explanation rings hollow when in fact the program effectively serves to provide cheap labor to domestic businesses struggling to secure enough workers. The trainees are covered by Japan’s labor laws and minimum legal wages. But cases in which trainees are forced to work under abusive conditions by their employers, including underpayment and illegal overtime work, are rampant. A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry probe of businesses that employ the trainees in 2015 found that nearly 3,700 of them — about 70 percent of the total and an increase of roughly 720 from the previous year — violated labor laws and work safety rules. The extent of the violation of labor rules raises doubts as to whether the oversight mechanism to be created by the new legislation will effectively deter such abuses.

A recent report that the 2014 death of a 27-year-old trainee from the Philippines working at a casting company in Gifu Prefecture has been linked to overwork is just one example of the abusive conditions facing interns. Joey Tocnang, who died of heart failure in the company’s dormitory in April 2014, was found to have engaged in 96 to 115 hours of overtime per month over the three months before his death. There are numerous reports of trainees disappearing as they escape from their abusive employers.

The number of foreign trainees under the program has been rising in response to growing demand by employers. A recent Kyodo News survey shows that the trainees work in 1,240 municipalities across the country — or 77 percent of the total — and that nearly a third of the municipalities said they want to invite more foreign workers to make up for their manpower shortages. The ratio of such municipalities tends to be particularly high in areas that suffer from steep declines in population — and whose main industries suffer chronic shortage of workers, such as agriculture.

The shortage of nursing care workers is expected to get worse as demand shoots up with the aging of Japan’s population. It is estimated that in 2025, when the youngest of the nation’s postwar baby boomer generation will turn 75, the number of people requiring nursing care support will top 6 million, a 30 percent increase from today. At that point, it is expected that the nation will suffer from a shortage of about 380,000 caregivers.

Even today, the nursing care sector suffers from a high turnover of workers due to poor pay for a physically demanding job. Their average monthly salary of ¥220,000 (US$2,098) is more than ¥100,000 lower than the all-industry average. The ratio of job offers to job seekers in the nursing care business is more than double the all-industry average — an indication of the difficulties the operators of care facilities face in securing enough staff. The Abe administration has pledged to raise the wages of nursing care workers as part of its plan to boost the capacity of care facilities to meet demand, but the amount is seen as too little to significantly attract more workers.

Such a situation, however, does not justify resorting to the foreign trainee program — especially given all the problems surrounding it — to fill the manpower shortage. The government should find another solution.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Olivia Yang