TOKYO—As Japan ages and the population declines it needs foreign workers more than ever, but it’s unlikely to get them when employers can snatch your passport and keep it, even after you quit—leaving you in legal limbo.
It all seems like something that you’d expect to happen in a dodgy part of the Middle East, but nope, it’s happening in the Land of Omotenashi, where everyone is putting on a friendly face with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on the horizon.
Foreign tourists with money are very welcome. Foreign laborers? Not so much. Yet they are needed. The Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) union published a report last year, The Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, claiming that laborers—many of them foreign—already are being overworked and exposed to dangerous conditions. There simply aren’t enough Japanese to do the jobs that need to be done.
Even if all the sporting venues, new hotels, and housing for the Olympics are completed in time for the start of the games in July, staffing those facilities adequately may be a colossal challenge.
There’s even concern there won’t be enough security staff to police the venues, and the Japanese government is considering asking Japan’s Self Defense Forces to do the job. But soldiers can’t take up the slack elsewhere.
Japan’s Cabinet Office announced last year that the nation has a shortage of about 1.2 million workers, primarily in the construction, agriculture, fishing and hotel industries. Teikoku Data Bank lists 10 major industries in Japan that already are short on labor, not only in construction, but in the automobile industry and information technology.
Perhaps that is why Japan is willing to look the other way when laws get bent, as long as empty workbenches are filled. But Japan’s rep among potential recruits is such that many are discouraged from coming here. The abuse of foreign workers often occurs within the antiquated laws of this country, and the Japanese government seems to have no interest in solving the problem.
On Thursday, a Filipino woman, with the financial aid and support of the independent nonprofit called POSSE, which supports labor issues here, sued her employer in the Yokohama District Court. She is requesting the return of her confiscated passport and her graduation certificate, as well as financial compensation. Without her passport, she cannot find a new job or leave the country. Her employer, ironically, is an Immigration Law Firm in Yokohama.
According to the lawsuit and her lawyers, “Brenda”—who has asked us not to use her name, lest she be branded a troublemaker when she seeks future employment—arrived in Japan in 2017. After finishing Japanese language school, she began working for the law office in Yokohama in April of 2019.
Brenda was asked to give her employer the documents necessary to process her visa paperwork, and she signed a contract that allowed her boss to “manage” these materials. She did interpreting, translating Tagalog into English, and other secretarial work for the firm. However, when she was paid after the first month she discovered her entire salary was under 100,000 yen (about $900), well below the cost of living. That was half of what she had been promised. She tried to quit the firm, but her boss refused to give her back her papers, saying, “If I give you your documents, you’ll run away.”
Eventually, in early July she did resign, but the firm still refused to give her back her passport. She went to POSSE, which is known for helping young workers, students and foreign laborers.
Makoto Iwahashi, a staff member there, says that when they went to the law office with Brenda to talk to her employer, he refused to cooperate and yelled at them to leave.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” says Iwahashi. “In order to make non-Japanese work long hours for very little pay without quitting, a number of companies confiscate their employees' passports.” Many foreign workers complain about poor conditions, wage arrears, workplace injuries, and unfair dismissal, he said, but regulations to protect the rights of foreign workers are far behind where they need to be.”
“Many workers speak little Japanese,” says Iwahashi, which is a major handicap. “They are afraid to speak up or report the harsh conditions.”
Iwahashi notes that in many countries withholding an employee’s passport is against the law. The Immigration Bureau of Japan says there is nothing illegal about an employer keeping the passport of a foreign worker who is not under the technical trainee program. The Labor Ministry of Japan has issued guidelines discouraging employers from holding onto passports, but there are no penalties for violators.
If Japan wants to attract the large number of workers it needs, says Iwahashi, it’s going to have to do a better job protecting their rights.
Brenda told The Daily Beast, “I had heard stories about foreign workers being treated badly in Japan, but I never expected it from an Immigration Law Office. I guess because they know the law, they know they can get away with it.” She said she feels like an untethered kite in the wind, unable to find work because now she doesn’t have the necessary paperwork to apply for a job, and unable to leave Japan because she does not yet have a new passport, or her old one back.
Still, Brenda is a little lucky. POSSE is paying for the lawsuit and soliciting funds for the court case, which may take up to two years. “Even if the embassy reissues my passport, I’m going to fight this. I will stay and I will work and I will fight. I’m surely not the first foreigner in Japan to suffer this treatment, but I would like to be the last one.”
Brenda’s former employer, the Yokohama legal firm, has not yet responded to requests for comment, despite phone calls, letters, and emails.
Shoichi Ibusuki, the noted labor rights lawyer representing Brenda, says that it’s very rare to sue for the return of a passport in Japan. Most employers would simply return the passport rather than go to court. “But then again very few foreigners would ever be able to take their employers to court in the first place.”
The road to restitution and fair treatment for foreign workers is long and hard; the odds of winning are not on their side.
“In 2015, I was able to gain back wages from one surly employer of a foreign agricultural worker,” says Ibusuki, “but I had to get a court order to seize 1,000 chickens and their eggs, in lieu of compensation.”
At that point the recalcitrant employer chickened out, as it were, and paid up what he owed—after what had been more than a court battle of more than two years.
Partly for cultural reasons, Japan has never been a model nation when it comes to labor laws and worker protections. This is, after all, a country where Karoshi (death by overwork) is a word everybody knows. Japan’s working hours are some of the longest in the world, according to the International Labor Organization, despite numerous attempts at reform.
It may be a lot to expect a country notoriously unfriendly to labor conditions with its own people to integrate foreign labor successfully, and the history is not encouraging.
In the old days, Japan solved labor shortages in part by conquering Korea or parts of China and integrating them into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This doesn't work so well anymore, but the archaic labor laws have not advanced far from this “golden era” when labor was synomous with slavery.
Modern-day servitude in Japan is more subtle, and a prime example of how it works is the Technical Intern Training Program. It started in 1993 and has come under fire repeatedly as a breeding ground for the exploitation of foreign labor.
The Japan Times in an editorial, “Overhaul Foreign Trainee Program”, bluntly stated that a large number of trainees “are in fact used as cheap labor under abusive conditions.”
“Japanese labor laws are deeply flawed and outdated, unfit to protect Japanese workers, much less foreign workers,” says Yoshihisa Saito, an associate professor at Kobe University Graduate School of International Cooperation Studies. He notes that while there appears to have been progress made in integrating foreigners into the workplace, most of these advances are merely cosmetic. Saito emphasizes, “There are a multitude of legal ways that a Japanese company can keep a non-Japanese employee in servitude, other than simply taking their passport.”
In the end, Saito points out, the Japanese system for recruiting “is not about measuring skill but measuring endurance. Japanese companies want people who have gone through and completed spartan training programs, who make no complaints, and can build pleasant relationships at their workplace. This is seen as the ultimate virtue of a Japanese worker—endure silently and work long, long, long hours for low pay.”
Japan is a lovely place to visit as a foreign tourist. But currently if you want to work at Hotel Japan as a foreign laborer, you will need to check your human rights and your passport at the front desk.
You can’t change hotels and, to paraphrase The Eagles, while you can check out anytime you like, you may not be able to leave.