Throwaway Labour: The exploitation of Chinese “trainees” in Japan

13 June 2011
Japan is by far the largest international market for Chinese labour, valued at around US$1.5 billion in 2009, three times the size of the second largest market in Singapore. The vast majority of Chinese workers in Japan are employed as “trainees” under a scheme first devised by the Japanese government in the 1980s to address its domestic labour shortage. China, with a huge labour surplus, has been able to meet Japan’s demand for trainees through the development of labour export companies which can place large numbers of workers abroad. It is estimated that prior to the disastrous earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011, after which many trainees left, some 80 percent of the more than 150,000 trainees in Japan were from China.

A new research report by China Labour Bulletin examines in detail how this conveyor belt supplying cheap Chinese labour to Japan developed over the last decade, and shows that while Japanese employers and Chinese placement companies may have benefited from the arrangement, the vast majority of trainees have not.

Trainees have to pay excessive fees and commissions just to get the job and, once in Japan, they are often forced to work long hours for low pay in frequently hazardous conditions. Their freedom of movement and association are severely constrained and the accommodation and food provided by their employer is often substandard. Many have their wages deducted at source and kept in a bank account controlled by their employer. Moreover, trainees are often forced to lie to Japanese labour inspectors about their wage levels and working conditions. Chinese trainees in Japan usually put up with such conditions because they risk retaliation from their employer and their placement company if they file a complaint.

The report provides a historical overview of the laws and government policies related to the export of Chinese labour to Japan, explains the process by which Chinese trainees are recruited and the fees they have to pay, provides a detailed picture of trainees’ living and working conditions in Japan and analyses the legal and practical options trainees have if their rights are violated by their employer or the Chinese company that placed them with that employer.

As Japan starts to rebuild after the 11 March disaster, the report suggests, now is the ideal time for the country to adopt a more open, fair and inclusive approach to foreign labour and for the Chinese government to overhaul and properly regulate its labour export system, so as to end once and for all the exploitation of Chinese trainees in Japan.

Throwaway Labour: The exploitation of Chinese “trainees” in Japan is web-published on 14 July 2011 and is also available as a bound edition.

It follows CLB’s first research report on Chinese workers overseas Hired on Sufferance: China’s Migrant Workers in Singapore, published in February 2011.
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