Japanese Supreme Court decision puts trainee workers back in the spotlight

The Supreme Court of Japan has ordered a retrial to determine the compensation to be paid to the family of Luo Cheng, a Chinese “trainee” worker who was killed by a Japanese policeman more than seven years ago.

Luo, 38, was fatally wounded in the abdomen whilst allegedly resisting arrest in Tochigi prefecture, where he was employed. The Tokyo Higher Court had ruled that Luo’s widow should be paid 10 million yen in compensation (the family had demanded 50 million yen) but Kyodo News reported on 16 January that the Supreme Court said the Higher Court had “wrongly evaluated the evidence” and denied the validity of the policeman’s statement, which claimed self-defence.

Luo was a Chinese navy veteran, married with two young children. He was working in Japan, like tens of thousands of other Chinese workers, as a “trainee” under a long-standing scheme used by the Japanese government to import cheap foreign labour on a short-term basis and without the legal protections offered to Japanese workers.

Trainees suffer from low pay, long hours and poor working conditions, and are most often employed in Japan’s the so-called 3K industries: kitsui (demanding), kitanai (dirty), and kiken (dangerous). They have to pay huge recruitment fees to agencies in China and are often held as virtual prisoners until they can pay off the recruitment fee.

The system has been widely criticised both inside and outside Japan but there are still reportedly around 150,000 trainees working in Japan, the majority of who come from China. The Guangzhou Daily reported in December 2013 that more than 100,000 Chinese trainees suffered slavery-like conditions, and many had to work as much as 200 hours overtime every month.

In 2011, China Labour Bulletin published a detailed research report on Chinese trainees in Japan which recommended that both the Japanese and Chinese governments take new measures to ensure that Chinese workers are protected in Japan and not exploited by labour agencies in China. Thus far, although the official figures for Japanese employers committing violations against trainees have declined since 2008, there is little real evidence that either government has taken the issue seriously.

Trade unions and others have called for the training program, established in 1993, to be abolished and replaced with a formal system for employment of foreign workers. "We need to stop the deception," Ippei Torii, vice president of ZWU All United Workers Union, told the Associated Press: "If we need to bring in foreign workers, then we should call them workers and treat them so."

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