Japan is pushing back against centuries of societal resistance to immigration. (ABC News: Jake Sturmer)
Most days it takes Pisey Eng until midnight to iron more than 1,000 garments and pack them into boxes.
- Japan’s ageing population is facing a dire labour shortage
- Existing working visa schemes have been compared to modern slavery
- The Government insists its new foreign worker policy will not facilitate worker exploitation
Despite the pain in her hand, she forces herself to keep ironing — sometimes until 4am.
“I tell myself I have to work. If I have no work, I have no money,” she said.
The 33-year-old mother moved to Japan from Cambodia two years ago for a trainee job promising 120,000 yen ($1,500) a month.
It would have been enough to support her eight-year-old son at home, but her Japanese employer ended up paying her half that amount.
When she complained, the company called her a liar.
“When I got here everything they told me was different,” she said.
“It’s not the same place, my place is not good.”
Cambodian worker Pisey Eng came to Japan in 2016 under the Technical Intern Training Program. (ABC News: Jake Sturmer)
Worse still, she was forced to pay out almost half of her salary to the Cambodian company that arranged her placement, leaving her unable to afford a ticket home.
Ms Eng came to Japan in 2016 under the Technical Intern Training Program.
Introduced in 1993, the scheme was designed to help blue-collar workers in the region learn new skills while at the same time effectively bringing in cheap labour to ease the country’s crippling worker shortfall.
Like many other trainees, she now finds herself trapped in a system rife with exploitation.
Undoing centuries of resistance to foreigners
In the face of a desperate labour shortage caused by an ageing population, Japan is pushing back against centuries of societal resistance to immigration to bring in workers from abroad.
The Japanese Parliament has just passed a controversial bill that will allow 345,150 blue-collar workers into the country over the next five years.
Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, has stressed the need for a new program to fill labour shortages but has made it clear that this is not an immigration policy.
A shelter has been set up in Gifu, central Japan, for foreign workers with nowhere else to go. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)
He has vowed to cap the number of workers and the length of time they can stay in the country.
For the past 15 years, Australia’s average net overseas migration rate has been around nine migrants coming to the country per 1,000 people.
In Japan, it is close to zero.
There are historical and cultural reasons why the country has been resistant to foreigners.
Hundreds of years ago, the country was virtually shut off from the rest of the world as Japan took an isolationist foreign policy.
That lone island mentality has persisted, leading to a largely homogenous society — just 2 per cent of its 125 million population are foreigners.
In the past few years there has been a significant increase in the number of foreign workers — these include highly skilled professionals, trainees and ethnic Japanese from Brazil.
Japan’s recent experiences with immigrants have led to alarming rates of worker deaths and exploitation. (ABC News: Jake Sturmer)
Japan’s recent experiences with immigrants have not ended well.
To fuel the country’s “economic miracle”, Brazilians of Japanese descent were encouraged to return in the 1980s and 1990s.
With their very different cultures, they established communities and worked in factories, but when the bubble burst and companies downsized, many of the 300,000 Brazilians were paid to go home.
Modern slavery fears
There are also concerns that Japan’s new worker visa is merely a relabelling of the existing trainee scheme, which has seen alarming rates of worker deaths and exploitation.
Critics of that scheme — introduced 15 years ago — say it is akin to modern slavery.
“[The trainees] receive treatment which is unimaginable for Japanese people, but they’re unable to complain,” lawyer Takeshi Harigaya said.
“You could say they are considered — the government has been saying for a long time that Japan needs a labour force, but not labourers.
“It lacks the sense that it’s accepting these people as human beings.”
Between 2010 and 2017, 174 foreign trainees died in Japan — many in their 20s and 30s — and at a rate double that of the Japanese working population.
Buddhist nun Thich Tam Tri prays for Vietnamese workers who died in Japan in the past 15 years. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)
A large number of foreign trainees work in construction and food production industries where accidents often occur, and they may not have received proper safety training.
Many of the deaths were workplace accidents, some were suicides and suspected deaths from overwork.
Buddhist nun Thich Tam Tri regularly prays for dozens of Vietnamese people who have died in Japan in the past 15 years.
Many of these people were young trainees who wanted to return home to get a good job.
“They had many dreams but instead lost their lives in Japan,” she said.
“I would like these people to be able to live safely and their lives to be protected.”
According to Japan’s Labour Ministry, inspections revealed that nearly 6,000 businesses that hired technical trainees in 2016 showed that almost three-quarters of them had violated labour laws, with officers finding illegal overtime, unpaid wages and breaches of safety regulations.
Buddhist mortuary tablets bear the names of deceased Vietnamese workers. (ABC News: Yumi Asada)
The Government passed a new law to try to protect the rights of foreign trainees with an oversight body, but there are serious concerns about its effectiveness — less than 400 employees are supposed to monitor and supervise the 40,000 businesses that use trainees.
Because many of the trainees struggle with learning Japanese, their employers get frustrated — and in some cases, abusive.
Under the program, trainees can only work at one employer — and victims say they feel trapped.
The working visa trap
In Gifu, central Japan, a shelter has been set up for foreign workers who have nowhere else to go.
It is here that Ms Eng lives with 15 other trainees unable to afford to get back to their home countries.
Some are huddled by a heater on the ground floor — the warmest spot in the building.
Pisey Eng, left, and her friend, right, are two of 16 trainees unable to buy tickets home after moving to Japan on foreign worker visas. (ABC News: Jake Sturmer)
Several are video chatting with their families back home because it is also the only spot with an internet connection.
Chinese trainee Jianhua Shi, 34, said she worked at a paper factory but felt so helpless she attempted suicide.
“The machines were old and broken. It couldn’t be fixed, but everybody got angry at me every time. I was very scared of everyone,” she said.
“They said, ‘why can’t do you many things, why can’t you speak Japanese, you’re useless at work’.
“I couldn’t sleep at night.”
Chinese trainee Jianhua Shi said she attempted suicide after being discriminated against in the workplace. (ABC News: Jake Sturmer)
Many workers who come to Japan take out expensive loans to pay brokers in their home country to facilitate their trip.
Without work or enough money to pay back the broker or flights home, they cannot leave.
Some simply flee — in the past year almost 3,000 trainees disappeared.
An analysis of worker records by the opposition has shown that more than two thirds of those workers were paid below minimum wage.
Safeguarding against exploitation
The Government says it is working to ensure its new foreign worker policy does not result in worker exploitation.
It will encourage businesses to directly hire workers and eliminate the exploitative middlemen.
It will also specify the responsibilities of companies that hire the workers, including ensuring they receive sufficient support in Japan such as learning the language and offering salaries equal to those of their Japanese counterparts.
This is expected to be in place by April 1 next year.
The shelter in Gifu is only a temporary solution to a much wider-spread problem. (ABC News: Jake Sturmer)
Some locals fear migrants will not understand the language or appreciate Japanese culture and customs, and therefore struggle.
Those anxieties are only likely to be amplified as a new tranche of foreign workers arrive in the years ahead.
But for Thich Tam Tri, the tragic cases and stories are not representative of the real Japan, which she hopes will eventually shine through.
“I love Japan, I love Japanese people, culture and customs,” she said.
“The technical interns tell me that the Japanese people at their workplace were not like Japanese people.
“I think it’s necessary to have love and emotions, and not just rules so the work can be done.”