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New foreign intern system faces hurdles

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Yomiuri ShimbunA new system governing technical intern training for foreigners (see below) has been launched to expand the program and better protect trainees. It is hoped the system will help normalize the program, which is promoted as a form of “international contribution” but often used simply to secure workers. Nevertheless, a number of hurdles remain, including improving its inspection system and wage disparities between rural and urban areas.

Staff on loan

The key to the revamped system is the newly created Organization for Technical Intern Training (OTIT), a government-authorized corporation based in Tokyo. OTIT is tasked with conducting on-site inspections of supervising organizations — made up of local chambers of commerce and industry, agricultural and fishery cooperatives and others — that act as intermediaries between trainees and companies. OTIT also inspects farms and other accepting organizations.

Previously, the Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO), a Tokyo-based public interest corporation, was entrusted by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry with giving on-site guidance to accepting organizations, using about ¥400 million given annually as commissions from the ministry.

OTIT receives more than eight times this amount from the national government — about ¥3.5 billion. The organization is to inspect the about 2,000 supervising organizations nationwide once a year and the about 40,000 accepting organizations once every three years. Organizations that are found to be operating maliciously will be penalized, such as by being banned from having interns.

However, OTIT only has about 300 staff, including executives. Most are on loan from the Justice Ministry and the labor ministry, and not all of them are experienced in performing inspections. “It’s essential to strengthen our system for staff involved in surveys and other specialized duties. We are considering hiring new workers or bringing on experienced mid-career personnel,” an OTIT executive said.

How much leeway?

One of OTIT’s roles is to approve training plans that are made for each intern by accepting organizations and others. A condition of approval is that the training will not consist of repetitive tasks. However, it is not uncommon for interns to be given repetitive jobs to continuously perform.

According to a company that raises and processes oysters in Hiroshima Prefecture, firms in the area have their interns spend most of their time shucking oysters, and their training plans exist in name only. “Companies need workers to shuck oysters and the interns are mainly here to make money,” said a man who runs the oyster company. “Supply meets demand, so there’s no problem.”

However, if discrepancies with training plans are discovered during on-site inspections, organizations that accept trainees may lose the ability to have interns. “It’s difficult to figure out how much consideration should be given to the actual situations. If the inspections are strict, a lot of accepting organizations won’t be able to maintain their business,” said an official of JITCO, which is no longer performing guidance visits, but is focusing on supporting the program and other activities.

Cities have an advantage?

“The only means we have of persuading trainees [to stay in the current area] is to tell them, ‘Things are more expensive in the city, so there is not much practical difference in your income level,’” an executive of a supervising organization in Saga Prefecture said. Under the new system, training periods can be extended to five years from three, the previous maximum, for supervising institutions and intern-accepting organizations that are certified as “excellent” by the government or OTIT. Interns can transfer to other supervising organizations or accepting organizations after they finish their third year. This gives a degree of job freedom to trainees, who previously were compelled to endure even poor environments.

Most interns work for minimum-level wages, which range from ¥737 in Saga Prefecture to ¥958 in Tokyo, a difference of ¥221. Accepting organizations in rural areas worry that many interns will choose to transfer to urban areas where wages are higher after their third year.

One major supervising organization in Tokyo that has already been certified as “excellent” said it is constantly receiving enquiries from interns. “It cannot be helped that under the new system, supervising organizations and trainee accepting bodies will be weeded out. If market mechanisms result in interns congregating at excellent organizations, it will effectively help to normalize the system,” an executive of the Tokyo organization said.

Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer who is coleader of a legal council that works on problems involving foreign technical interns, said: “Under the old system, even if the paperwork was in order, human rights violations and other malfeasance went on behind the scenes. Effective on-site inspections are essential to make the people who employ interns stop seeing them just as ‘labor.’ The central government needs to swiftly strengthen the system, such as by greatly increasing the organization’s staff.”

■ Foreign technical intern training system

Created in 1993 to help foreigners learn skills by working in Japan so they can later return to and develop their home countries. Interns can work in 77 occupations, including agriculture, fishing, construction, food processing, textiles, apparel, machinery, metals and nursing care. There were more than 250,000 interns as of the end of June. Speech

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