When a young Vietnamese woman found out late last year that she was pregnant after arriving in Japan on a “technical trainee” visa, she was given a stark choice: “Have an abortion or go back to Vietnam.”But returning home would leave her unable to pay back the $10,000 she borrowed to pay recruiters there. “She needs to stay to pay back her debts,” said Shiro Sasaki, secretary general of the Zentoitsu (All United) Workers Union, who has advocated on her behalf and said such threats were common.Buoyed by hopes of higher wages but burdened by loans, Vietnamese youth – the fastest-growing group of foreign workers in Japan – will be among those most affected by a new scheme to let in more blue-collar workers that kicks off in April. “Trainees from China have been declining as wages there rise with economic growth, while in Vietnam, unemployment is high for youth with high education levels, so many young people want to go abroad to work,” said Futaba Ishizuka, a research fellow at the Institute of Developing Economies, a think tank.The technical trainee programme is widely known as a back door for blue-collar labour in immigration-shy Japan. Reported abuses in Japan include low and unpaid wages, excessive hours, violence and sexual harassment. In Vietnam, unscrupulous recruiters and brokers often charge trainees exorbitant fees. Such problems will persist and could worsen under the new system, aimed at easing a historic labour shortage, according to interviews with activists, academics, unionists and trainees.Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose conservative base fears a rise in crime and a threat to the country’s social fabric, has insisted that the new law, enacted in December, does not constitute an “immigration policy.” That worries critics.“In fact, Japan is already a country of immigrants. But because they say it is not an ‘immigration policy’ and the premise is that people will not stay, they only take temporary steps,” said Japan Civil Liberties Union director Akira Hatate. “The needs of society are not met, and the needs of the workers are not met.” Growing NumbersThe trainees system began in 1993 with the aim of transferring skills to workers from developing countries. But persistent abuses developed early on, experts say.Those issues were spotlighted last year during debate over the new law.Among the high-profile cases was that of four companies’ using trainees for decontamination work in areas affected by radiation after the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Two firms, also accused of not paying appropriate wages, were banned from employing trainees for five years; the others got warnings from the justice ministry.A labour ministry survey published in June showed more than 70 percent of trainee employers had violated labour rules, with excessive hours and safety problems most common. That compared to 66 percent for employers overall.Published in Daily Times, March 20th 2019.