Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Japan’s Economic Wasteland: Abused and Exploited Migrant Workers

In 2023, Japan marked its fourteenth straight year of population decline, as the country lost 800,000 people in a single year. The aging population threatens to severely cripple the nation’s economy without a sustainable workforce to maintain economic growth. As a response to a growing need for young workers, Japan has developed several programs to recruit immigrants into its workforce. The country’s new strategy, while showing economic promise, has been plagued by egregious and widespread abuses of immigrant laborers.

Without proper protection for these vulnerable workers, the programs will fail to recruit an essential part of its labor force and drive the country down a precipitous economic path. Japan must immediately take action to improve immigrant workers rights to aptly plug the labor gap and it must penalize corporations who fail to abide by industry standards.

Japan’s economy is desperate for more workers to support its aging population in a country where the death rate is double the birth rate. Japan has maintained a consistently low birth rate for years, with a fertility rate of 1.3, well below the 2.1 required to maintain a stable population. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has warned the crisis is so severe that the country is “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions.”

A recent study found that 6.74 million foreign workers will be needed by 2040 to achieve sustainable economic growth, four times the number of workers they now have. The current infrastructure is insufficient to recruit such large numbers and these recruitment challenges are complicated by workers’ rights abuses that are commonplace. The mistreatment of immigrant workers is jeopardizing Japan’s reputation at a time when China and Southeast Asian countries are working harder to attract and retain manpower.

Launched in 1993, the Technical Training Intern Program (TTIP) sought to recruit workers from mostly East Asian countries and draw them to Japan. The program’s goal was to “transfer skills, technologies, or knowledge accumulated in Japan to other regions and to promote international cooperation by contributing to the development of human resources.”

In reality, the program was a bureaucratic tool to facilitate forced labor. In 2017, the Japanese labor ministry uncovered evidence that 4,000 locations were violating labor laws with immigrants in TTIP. This comprised 70% of the workspaces they visited during that year. The blatant disregard for human suffering has been felt by migrant workers duped into the program and highlights the government’s inability to effectively monitor working conditions for foreign immigrants.

Individual stories from affected immigrant workers have been well documented and reported on. One report detailed a thirty-year-old Filipina woman who came to Japan pursuing the promise of a competitive wage and the opportunity to learn new skills. When she signed her contract in Japanese, a language she barely understood, the company seized her passport and college diploma. Upon learning that she was making around $900 a month, less than half of what was promised, she attempted to leave. The company refused to return her documents, citing that she would simply run away and never return to the company. They trapped her into staying and working for a measly wage, as without proper documents she was unable to find a new job or leave the country.

Episodes of entrapment and forced labor are now commonplace for immigrant workers across Japan, where those in TTIP are refused access to their documents. The same tactics have been used for the exploitation of other foreign workers and foreign language students in an attempt to bar them from changing workplaces or schools. These same workers often face further hardships of sixteen-hour shifts and abusive managers who threaten to send them home without pay.

The Japanese government took preliminary steps to protect immigrant workers involved in agriculture, textile, and manufacturing jobs. In 2017, Japan enacted a law prohibiting employers from retaining the passports of those involved in the TTIP. However, this law was incomplete as it did not extend to other foreign laborers or students.

More recently, a government report released last year submitted recommendations to enhance the TTIP by providing multi-layered protection for workers, improving career-building techniques, and attracting more trained recruits. The changes included implementing a new three-year visa component which could be upgraded to a five-year stay by demonstrating enough technical proficiency to qualify through the skilled category worker program. Part of the expansion even included an option for permanent residency.

Another accommodation was workers’ ability to change jobs after only one year in the position. This aimed to facilitate transitions out of abusive workplaces, albeit after one full year. These changes mark a serious turn from previous regulations which contained no permanent resettlement program, shorter visa stays, and restricted career changes. The new regulations are essential for Japan to retain workers for longer periods and increase their ability to retain a labor force in their dwindling industries.

On February 9th, Cabinet ministers approved the revamped plan to tackle labor rights abuses and improve the livelihoods of migrant workers. The reforms now face parliamentary approval and would drastically impact the 360,000 workers, mostly from Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines, who take part in the program. However, despite the designated reforms, Japan will have to follow through with its commitments to immigrant labor rights and establish key watchdog systems to monitor and hold private companies accountable.

The proposed framework remains remarkably inefficient in addressing unethical recruitment tactics in other countries and effective transitions between jobs. Many workers are placed in rural areas and agricultural settings, and few have the resources and sufficient training to adequately transition out of abusive labor industries and companies to more prosperous and high-paying opportunities. At this time, Japan is reckoning with the unknowns of its future economic outlook, yet part of its strategy must protect the migrant workers who have the capabilities to save the future of the country’s economy.