Zhou Liang knew he was rolling the dice in the spring of 2015 when he decided to flee his contract in Japan to become an illegal foreign worker. Then 25 years old, he had only been in Nagoya — a city on the Pacific coast of Japan’s Honshu island — for four months, but he already couldn’t take it anymore.
Zhou, now 29, accepted the placement when his family, which hails from the 7 million-strong city of Shangqiu in central China’s Henan province, ran into financial trouble after taking out a 300,000-yuan (then $49,000) loan to buy a house. A Chinese labor broker told Zhou he could earn more money overseas, so Zhou signed up to become one of the hundreds of thousands of unskilled Chinese who work in Japan under the country’s Technical Intern Training Program (TITP).
Established in 1993, the Japanese government claims that TITP’s primary mission is to transfer skills and technology from Japan to developing nations. Although the Technical Intern Training Act specified that TITP should not be used as a means to compensate for a shortage in domestic labor, for decades it has been the most important channel through which Japan attracts foreigners to labor-intensive industries, such as farming, construction, and manufacturing. Before being overtaken by Vietnam in 2016, China supplied the largest share of foreign trainees. In 2014, when Zhou arrived in Nagoya, there were 167,641 trainees across Japan, nearly 60 percent of whom were Chinese. Today, Chinese workers make up roughly one-third of the entire trainee population.
An undated photo shows TITP trainees working at a factory in Ofunato, Japan. Zhu Yuanli/VCG
Despite the charitable ideals projected by the Japanese government, for Zhou and many other Chinese trainees, money is their sole reason for going abroad to work in industries described by the Japanese as “the three Ks” — kitanai, kitsui, kiken, or “dirty, hard, dangerous.” Economic desperation means that foreign workers are often in the crosshairs of shady agents and brokers — both at home and in Japan — who exaggerate salaries and benefits. Many trainees, however, receive minimum wage and live in substandard conditions.
Under a new visa policy taking effect this April, Japan is set to add 40,000 foreigners to its workforce in a bid to combat the country’s aging and declining population. Sixty percent of this new batch will eventually be switched from a trainee visa to a new category of work visa. Since this new policy is seen as an expansion of the TITP, however, experts say the lack and abuse of regulation in this decade-old program will likely persist.
Before going to Japan, Zhou worked in a Shenzhen-based mechanical components factory and earned a monthly salary of 6,000 yuan. But when a broker approached him through the online forum Baidu Tieba, “[he] promised me an hourly wage of 800 Japanese yen (then $7), with overtime every day,” Zhou tells Sixth Tone, explaining that, although he knew this sum fell below the Japanese minimum wage of around 900 yen per hour, workers like him often accepted similar wages, assuming that many jobs came with ample paid overtime.
Zhou signed a contract with the labor broker, paid a signing-on fee of 35,000 yuan, and then spent three months studying Japanese at a school in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian before leaving for Nagoya. For Zhou, who had never been out of China before, certain things about Japan impressed him, like the robust sense of public order and high food standards.
But soon, things took a turn for the worse: As well as an illegal salary, there was no overtime at all at Zhou’s workplace, an interior decoration studio. “We had to stop working at 5 p.m. sharp every day,” says Zhou. After deductions for rent and insurance, he received the equivalent of 5,000 yuan a month — less than he made in China. To complicate matters, Zhou says his Japanese employer was liable to lash out at him, the only Chinese employee.
Zhou reported the verbal abuse to a supervising body more than once, but his efforts were in vain. Eventually, he left the job but could not fathom returning to China. “It was impossible for me to go back after having devoted so much time and money yet not getting what I came for,” says Zhou.
According to the Ministry of Commerce, there are over 800 authorized labor agencies in China in the business of contracting workers for overseas jobs. But these agencies are not evenly spread across China, so for Zhou and other workers from areas with fewer of them, using brokers — who act as mediators — is common. However, the brokers often mislead workers regarding pay and working conditions and charge high fees, and it is illegal for an agent to recruit through a broker. “My signing-on fee of 35,000 yuan was actually the lowest among my group,” says Zhou. Other trainees who have spoken with Sixth Tone paid contract fees as high as 50,000 yuan. “Many families can’t even afford the agent fees and end up borrowing money,” Jiang Zhenhai, who runs an authorized labor agency in Dalian, tells Sixth Tone. According to Jiang, an authorized agent should charge no more than 30,000 yuan.
In the three years since abandoning his job, Zhou worked intermittently as an interior decorator in Yokohama and Kawasaki, two cities southwest of Tokyo. Since trainees cannot change their jobs or workplaces during the three-year TITP contract, any absconding worker is reported to the Japanese immigration authority as “missing” and faces forcible deportation if arrested. Zhou was one of the 3,116 Chinese trainees reported missing in Japan in 2015. “By nature, I’m a timid person. During my years as an illegal worker, I seldom went to public spaces and stations,” says Zhou, who narrowly escaped several streetside police checks by chance. He never told his family back in Henan about his illegal working status.
In a survey of 2,870 apprehended missing trainees conducted by Japan’s Justice Ministry in 2017, nearly 70 percent of respondents cited low pay as their reason for going AWOL. Other reasons included harsh management and violence in the workplace.
“Because trainees under TITP do not have the freedom to change jobs, there is not much competition in terms of the labor market, even in the industries with labor shortages,” Nobuya Takai, the secretary general of a network of Japanese lawyers that appeals for the rights of TITP trainees, tells Sixth Tone. “Therefore, the employers don’t have much incentive to raise the salaries.” On the other hand, he adds, for industries with low productivity, such as textiles, hiring trainees on illegal salaries below the minimum wage makes economic sense.
Jiang, the Dalian-based agent, also worked in Japan in 1993 when the TITP program had just been launched. He remembers how attractive the concept was. “Back then, the general impression was that one trainee would make the whole family rich,” he says. Just as the program attests in its mission statement, Jiang says he benefited from his work experience in Japan and gained new skills, particularly in problem-solving. In 2000, he started his own labor agency and has since sent hundreds of Chinese workers to Japan. But over the years, however, he says the program has become less attractive to the younger generation of Chinese workers, adding that the average salary has barely risen. According to Jiang, a trainee should earn around 4,800 yuan a month. In 2017, however, a survey of more than 6,000 Chinese blue-collar workers showed that those born after 1985 were earning an average of just 4,148 yuan. In addition, over half were found to be working in service industries, such as food delivery and in restaurants, as opposed to the typical labor-intensive industries TITP was designed for.
The exterior and interior of a TITP trainee’s dormitory in Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan, March 2019. Courtesy of Zhu Shiwei, a trainee who talked with Sixth Tone
It is common practice for agents and brokers to exaggerate salaries to attract workers, a Hebei-based broker — who requested anonymity because he is not technically authorized to provide advice to prospective workers — tells Sixth Tone. “It’s rare for the actual salary to match what the brokers promised, but then the working hours would violate international labor laws,” he says.
“The agent told me the amount of money I could make in Japan, but it’s a total lie,” a Chinese trainee who left the program and got deported in 2018 tells Sixth Tone. After several interviews in 2017, the young man, who has requested to remain anonymous, was employed by a garbage-classification company in Fukuoka, southern Japan. Although he was informed of his responsibilities before arriving in Japan, the job was even more strenuous than he expected. “The work was really exhausting. We toiled all day in garbage. The accommodation was bad, too. No one wanted to rent to us Chinese,” he remembers. “We ended up in a worn-out wooden house that was so close to the mountain, it was practically buried in trees.” The final straw was the poor payment. He never got the promised overtime pay, so decided to leave. “I spent thousands of yuan just to learn a lesson. That’s the result of believing the brokers’s lies,” says the trainee, his voice heavy from bitter experiences.
Although the supervising bodies of the TITP employers are aware of the unscrupulous brokers and agents, Takai, of the Japanese lawyers’ network, tells Sixth Tone that these people are beyond their control. “The employers are only supervised in regard to how many employees they recruit and for what roles,” says Takai. “The issue here is how the agents and brokers are regulated.”
In a major state regulation introduced in 2012, authorized agents in China were forbidden from providing false information to workers or recruiting workers via other brokers. Zhang Liqun, chief of the Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation Bureau in Dalian, tells Sixth Tone that difficulties in distinguishing between legal consultants and illegal brokers make regulation more challenging. “A consultant could provide information and charge a consultancy fee as long as he runs a registered business,” Zhang explains. “But if he signs a contract with the workers and then connects them to an agent, he would be engaging in illegal brokerage.”
Data from the Ministry of Commerce shows there are 66 authorized agents in Dalian, one of the largest concentrations among Chinese cities. According to Zhang, last year the ministry received over 100 complaints from workers, implicating 10 authorized agents. “Once the agents are found recruiting workers through brokers, their business licenses will be revoked,” says Zhang.
One week before leaving his placement, Zhou reported his agent to China’s petition authority. The anonymous deportee, however, doesn’t see the point. “Nobody cares about you back in China. If the case were reported in Japan, people would only laugh at you,” he says. In 2017, over 4,000 employers under TITP acknowledged violating Japanese labor laws, but only 88 cases were reported by trainees.
Zhou Liang poses for a picture after regaining legal status, at Kabukicho, Tokyo, January 2018. Courtesy of Zhou Liang
Japan’s upcoming visa policy is likely to bring a new surge in Chinese workers. “Many of those on the new visa plan will be transferred from TITP … therefore, the problems with TITP won’t disappear. Instead, there might be more problems,” says Takai, who has been advocating for the total abolishment of TITP with other lawyers in the network.
Last year, Zhou’s stressful time as an illegal foreign worker came to an end. He married a Japanese woman of Chinese origin, obtained a visa as a dependent, and settled in the city of Yokohama, near Tokyo, where he continues to work as a decorator. After several years avoiding public life, Zhou could finally relax and enjoy his new legal status. “After leaving my initial job, I lived my life running only from the workplace to the supermarket and the [workers’] dormitory,” he says. “When I met a girl I liked, even though I knew she might like me as well, I dared not ask her out, because I didn’t want to be in public places. Back then, I was afraid and depressed.”
(Header image: A night view of a street in Osaka, Japan, 2013. IC)