Thursday, July 22, 2010

Is Japan exploiting foreign workers
(and should South Korea take notice)?

The myriad similarities between Japan and South Korea when it comes to post-war social and economic development should cause Seoul officials to sit up and take notice from time to time.

Like now, when the Japanese trainee program that bear such a strong resemblance to its South Korean cousin is being criticized as exploitative.

From the New York Times:
Six young Chinese women arrived in this historic city three summers ago, among the tens of thousands of apprentices brought to Japan each year on the promise of job training, good pay and a chance at a better life back home.

Instead, the women say, they were subjected to 16-hour workdays assembling cellphones at below the minimum wage, with little training of any sort, all under the auspices of a government-approved “foreign trainee” program that critics call industrial Japan’s dirty secret.

“My head hurt, my throat stung,” said Zhang Yuwei, 23, who operated a machine that printed cellphone keypads, battling fumes that she said made the air so noxious that managers would tell Japanese employees to avoid her work area.

Ms. Zhang says she was let go last month after her employer found that she and five compatriots had complained to a social worker about their work conditions. A Japanese lawyer is now helping the group sue their former employer, seeking back pay and damages totaling $207,000.

Critics say foreign trainees have become an exploited source of cheap labor in a country with one of the world’s most rapidly aging populations and lowest birthrates. All but closed to immigration, Japan faces an acute labor shortage, especially for jobs at the country’s hardscrabble farms or small family-run factories.

“The mistreatment of trainees appears to be widespread,” said Shoichi Ibusuki, a human rights lawyer based in Tokyo.
This sounds so uncannily like the ROK's own trainee program it's not even funny. South Korean shares with Japan a need for cheap labor in the face of a graying, even shrinking population. But while South Korea has shown a willingness to allow some non-natives a chance to permanently settle where Japan has not, both have a real problem with the exploitation of foreign labor sources.

Perhaps the two countries can put their heads together to develop an enforceable system that is fair, non-exploitative, provides a livable wage, and treats foreign workers with dignity, but still provides manufacturers with skilled labor that allows them to keep jobs in country. Or am I fantasizing here?


  1. and we here in the states are just wonderful to our mexicans, no? sk and japan aren't the same. if they were, korea wouldn't have almost as many immigrants as japan even though japan is much larger. while it's true koreans need to improve their treatment of se asians, i found the nyt article sactimonious. a bit like the kettle calling the pot black.

  2. The NYT routinely publishes stories empathic to the plight of undocumented workers and editorials calling for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. Nowhere in the story does the NYT make and comparisons or implications regarding foreign workers in the US. Thanks for understanding that it's okay for a domestic newspaper to publish a story that portrays a foreign organization or country in a negative light.

    Some foreign workers with certain visas are really just exploitable labor in the US. If you aren't already aware of the lawsuit by Indian oil rig workers, read all about it here . Cases like this make me very, very leery of employer-sponsored temporary work visas. Foreign workers brought in under such visas stay here at the whim of their employers. Their pliability makes them more desirable than US citizens and legal residents for occupations with harsh work conditions in fields prone to labor law violations. Immigration reform must address this issue.

  3. Ditto what Sonagi said. Pawikirogi, I think you are sometimes very good at calling out hypocrisy, bigotry, or wrong-headed thinking in the pages of The Marmot's Hole, but that is offset by what amounts to the same thing in the opposite direction against White Americans. In this case, you're imagining something on the part of the NYT that isn't necessarily there unless you put it there.

  4. excuse me, kushibo, but i'm an american and i'm not white. my comment was about 'us' and not specific to race. anyway, many of the comments over at the nyt seem to say the same thing as i said here.

    thanks for maintaing your very nice blog.

  5. This kind of abuse is widely reported in the Korean media.
    But this is the first time I've heard of it regarding Japan. I guess their media is very hush hush when it comes to printing stories of foreigner plights.

  6. VWGTI, I honestly don't read enough of the Japanese media (and virtually none of the Japanese-language media) to know if they focus on foreigners' problems or not (I suspect that the Asahi Shimbun might). But I do know that the Japan Times does occasionally talk of the problems facing the Korean zainichi minority.


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