Forgotten workers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics: The plight of Japan’s foreign technical interns during the COVID-19 pandemic
Picture by Ftaaffe on Wikimedia Commons.
On March 12, 2020, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Ten days later, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics originally scheduled between July and August 2020. The pandemic-induced Tokyo Olympics cancellation has sparked unprecedented debate and concern in both international and domestic media over the massive economic losses. However, little attention has been paid to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who were expected to service the Japanese dream of hosting the Olympics. This paper seeks to document the plight of Japan’s unskilled migrant workers, or ‘forgotten workers’ of the Olympics, who have been severely affected by the myriad damages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Japan’s growing dependence on foreign workers is evident in the record number of non-citizen workers (1.66 million) as of October 2019. In particular, foreign technical interns (Ginou Jishusei) have served as an army of de facto unskilled migrant workers in the past three decades. The number of foreign technical interns has increased from 150,000 in 2010 to 410,000 in 2020. These workers have been recruited from neighbouring Asian countries, largely China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The sharp expansion of foreign interns in the past decade is linked to Japan’s urgent push for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. These migrants were brought to support the Olympics-related large-scale infrastructure projects, manufacturing industries, and various service sectors.
What is distinctive about Japan’s technical intern programme is its profound contradiction between the programme’s – in theory – paternalistic premise of transferring ‘technical skills and knowledge’ for lower-income countries and the – in practice – magnification of the notorious labour abuses and discrimination. Under the national labour law, foreign technical interns’ labour rights are protected. However, in reality, foreign interns oftentimes experience extensive illicit labour abuses by their employers. These rights violations include excessive overtime work hours, unpaid or underpaid wages, coercive salary withholding under the name of ‘mandatory savings’, passport confiscation, and habitual forms of verbal and physical violence by their employers. These foreign interns endure the unspeakable pain of labour servitude because of their accumulated debts rooted in overcharged pre-departure fees, the fear of penalties imposed by middlemen for not completing the employment contract, as well as migrants’ strong financial responsibility for their left-behind family members. In the presence of discriminatory barriers and abuses, it is not surprising to have both phenomena of the growing number of run-away foreign technical interns, as well as of the high prevalence of deaths of technical interns in the past decade. In short, Japan’s foreign intern system produces the very structure of migrant vulnerability and rightlessness by depriving migrants' capacity to claim their rights.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further deepened the existing structured immobility of foreign technical interns. Those who are employed especially in the manufacturing, restaurant, and tourism sectors are highly vulnerable to being laid off due to the pandemic-induced economic recession. Given their diminished income opportunities, unemployed foreign interns and former interns who have run away from their employers have been left without access to affordable shelter, food, and welfare support. Migrant advocacy groups and health professionals have expressed concern about the health risks of run-away former interns who do not have any access to healthcare. Undocumented former interns are highly vulnerable in terms of not seeking health services due to their fear of deportation. Migrant workers are furthermore not able to go home due to the pandemic-induced travel bans imposed by their native countries. The plight of both foreign interns and run-away former interns is magnified due to their protracted debt-bondage situation, especially the coercive pressure to pay off the accumulated debts that they owe to local migration agencies in their home countries.
In response to the mounting concerns for the unemployed foreign interns, since mid-April 2020, the Japanese government has implemented a series of emergency policies to make the current foreign intern system more flexible. These pandemic-related labour policies are focused on labour sector flexibility and income support. First, unemployed foreign interns are allowed to seek job opportunities in a sector beyond their original employment restrictions. These transferred interns are allowed to remain in the country for up to one year. This inter-sectoral labour transfer policy is seen as a win-win solution for the sectors that face severe labour shortages and the unemployed migrant workers.
These sectors, especially agricultural and elderly caregiving, have been greatly affected by the pandemic-related travel ban that has prohibited workers from entering Japan since March 2020. For example, cabbage farmers in Gunma Prefecture, north of Tokyo, have hired 300 foreign interns who were originally employed in the tourism industry. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, in April, 2,400 foreign agricultural workers, including technical interns, were prohibited from entering Japan due to the travel ban.
Second, those who completed their labour contract and are unable to go home due to travel restrictions by home countries are allowed to remain in Japan to work with the same or a different employer for up to 6 months. Third, the Japanese government announced that foreign technical interns are included in the distribution of the COVID-19 emergency relief cash handouts worth 100,000 JPY (about 910 USD) per head. These emergency packages have provided a certain degree of relief to the highly precarious migrant workers.
One should recognise, however, that these emergency responses are implemented not because of the Japanese government’s concern for the protection of foreign workers’ rights. These policies are, in fact, constitutive of the national economic priorities, especially minimising the adverse economic shocks that are caused by the triple crisis, namely, the COVID-19 pandemic, the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics, and the exponentially ageing population. Foreign technical interns, who are situated at the bottom of the labour hierarchy, are considered as useful disposable low-wage workers who can assist Japan's management of the triple challenges. Migrant workers are thus expected to bear the burden of the pandemic not just by suddenly being laid off without any labour protection but also by being conveniently transferred to other low-wage sectors without any long-term employment security. In the end, Japan’s forgotten workers of the Tokyo Olympics remain deeply vulnerable because as foreign technical interns their very essence is one of labour disposability and exploitability.
Kazue Takamura is Faculty Lecturer at the Institute for the Study of International Development, McGill University. Takamura’s research primarily focuses on Asia’s emerging migrant surveillance regimes, especially the overlooked intersection between neoliberal labour markets and illiberal migrant punishment including immigration detention. Her works also pay attention to the gendered patterns of labour mobility and immobility that are produced by the neoliberal migrant surveillance regimes.