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Japan’s Technical Intern Training Programme - Learning the Hard Way?

Commentary, 16 October 2017

By Takeshi Hayakawa, IHRB Visiting Researcher 2016, Jon Barnes, Independent Researcher; Research Fellow, IHRB

In September 2017, 37 member states endorsed an appeal during the UN General Assembly for urgent action on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7. This is the target that advocates immediate progress to eradicate human trafficking, forced labour, and modern slavery globally by 2030.

One of the signatories of the call was Japan.

This signal by Tokyo is welcome if it leads to firm action to tackle growing evidence of modern slavery problems in the country. Migrant workers are one of the groups most vulnerable to the worst forms of labour exploitation and abuses in supply chains. Japan, with its low birth rate and ageing population, is increasingly relying on foreign sources to tackle labour shortages in lower-skill sectors of its economy.

Japan’s treatment of migrant workers is likely to face increasing scrutiny, not least in the construction sector, as the country prepares to host the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In 2014, Japan’s government reportedly estimated it would require an additional 150,000 workers between 2015 and 2020 to meet the sector’s overall needs.


How the TITP Works

An important, yet increasingly controversial, mechanism for recruiting migrant construction workers in Japan – and foreign labour for many other sectors – is the Technical Intern Training Programme (TITP). The supposed official purpose of this state-supported scheme, set up formally in 1993, is to aid the industrial development of developing countries through the transfer of skills and expertise gained by developing country ’trainees’ who undergo one to three year placements in Japanese companies.

The supposed official to aid the industrial development of developing countries through the transfer of skills and expertise gained by developing country ’trainees’ 

TITP interns, 74.5 per cent of whom come from China and Vietnam, are hired in their countries of origin by recruiting agencies, which then work with Japanese business associations (so-called ‘supervising organisations’) to broker their placement with individual enterprises (‘implementing organisations’). In October 2016, Japan was hosting 211,108 TITP ‘interns’.

A controversial feature of TITP is its requirement that when ‘interns’ move to the second year of their internship, they must remain with the same enterprise that took them on in the first year. This renders the interns vulnerable to exploitation, particularly when their residency and immigration status is tied to such an arrangement. The result is a power imbalance in which migrant workers have a subordinate relationship with employers and are less able to claim their rights.

Growing Criticism

As such, TITP has faced growing criticism within Japan and internationally.

Critics allege that the scheme operates largely as a guest-worker programme providing cheap labour rather than the professional development of 'trainees', and that it involves widespread exploitation and human rights abuses, including human trafficking and forced labour.

Critics allege that TITP involves widespread exploitation and human rights abuses, including human trafficking and forced labour.

The US State Department, in its 2016 “Human Trafficking in Persons Report”, observed:

“Some of [the technical intern trainees] pay up to $10,000 for jobs and are employed under contracts that mandate forfeiture of the equivalent of thousands of dollars if they leave. Reports continue of excessive fees, deposits, and ‘punishment’ contracts by sending organisations under this programme. Some employers confiscate trainees’ passports and other personal identity documents and control the movements of technical intern trainees to prevent their escape or communication with persons outside the program.”

Amid growing pressure to address the issues, the Japanese government in 2016 introduced legislation on TITP, which is due to enter into force by November 2017. This envisages the creation of a new TITP oversight body with the legal authority to conduct investigations in collaboration with labour and justice ministries, as well as some measures to improve regulation of the business associations and enterprises involved in the programme.

Civil society organisations, however, have criticised the legislation as lacking serious ambition, and are particularly unhappy with its increase of TITP’s maximum term for interns from three to five years. The extension, they argue, will merely prolong the abuse of victims. It could also double the number of interns who work in Japan.

Strategy Needed

Whatever the debates about how TITP should be reformed and whether it should be scrapped or replaced, Japan needs a more comprehensive strategy to prevent and address abuses affecting migrant workers.

Japan is not alone in facing the challenge of protecting migrant workers’ rights.

The Government could move to strengthen and enforce existing domestic labour law protections and prevent immigration policies acting act as a source of discrimination and vulnerability, as well as adopt relevant international standards and tools as a spur for national action. (Japan has not ratified International Labour Organization conventions on migrant worker protection and is yet to ratify the 2014 protocol of ILO Convention 29 promoting binding action on forced labour.)

Japan is not alone in facing the challenge of protecting migrant workers’ rights. 

Growing pressure for change has led some governments to introduce legislation to encourage business practice avoiding forced labour in supply chains, and Japan could build on their lessons in taking similar action itself. These moves include, for example, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act and the UK’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act. Meanwhile, tools developed and promoted through multi-stakeholder dialogue to promote respect for migrant worker rights, such as the Dhaka Principles for Migration with Dignity, now translated into Japanese, are useful for companies in Japan seeking to overcome the problems raised by TITP.

In a positive move, the Japanese government stated in late 2016 that it will develop a national action plan (NAP) to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). This is significant as key features of the UNGPs, and the Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework they rest on, are crucial to tackling the challenges of TITP.

As far as the SDG 8.7 target is concerned, it should be stressed that the UNGPs, along with ILO Conventions, are identified as an official means of achieving the SDGs and all stakeholders need to do far more to achieve a solid link in practice.

Tokyo 2020 preparations are a litmus test of how committed Japanese government and businesses are addressing migrant worker rights.

The Japanese government announced its plans for a NAP specifically in the context of Tokyo 2020, aware that the Olympic Games will attract human rights scrutiny. Indeed, Tokyo 2020 preparations are a litmus test of how committed the Government and businesses are to the strategic action needed to address the adverse impacts associated with the TITP, not just in relation to the Games but in Japan’s economy as a whole.

Such action is crucial to protect migrant workers, but also for Japan’s international image if, in the context of construction for the 2020 Tokyo games, it is to avoid controversies of the kind surrounding Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup for example.

More information on the TITP and its implications can be found in IHRB’s new report: “Learning Experience? Japan’s Technical Intern Training Programme and the Challenge of Protecting the Rights of Migrant Workers” published in October 2017.

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