BEBESEA’s contribution to C20 Discussion for G20 Labour and Employment Ministerial Meeting 
Posted on September 14, 2022
Category: Article

G20 Labour and Employment Ministers’ Meeting (G20-LEMM) was held in Bali from September 13 to 14, 2022. C20 or Civil 20 is one of the official engagement partners of G20. Mariko Hayashi, the Co-Founder of BEBESEA, took part in the C20 discussion, which was held on August 31, 2022 in a hybrid setting of online and offline in Jakarta ahead of the G20-LEMM under the presidency of Indonesia. The below is her contribution at the event. 

Overview of migrant labour in Japan

The latest data released by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) shows that Japan is home to over 1.73 million registered foreign workers (as of October 2021). The largest nationality group of these foreign workers is Vietnamese, followed by Chinese, Filipino, Nepalese, South Korean and Indonesian. Data before the COVID-19 pandemic (as of October 2019) showed that although they were not called “workers” by their immigration status, technical internship trainees under the Technical Internship Training Program (TITP) and international students occupied more than 40% of the total number of foreign workers – with a breakdown of technical intern trainees to be 23.1% and international students 19.2%.

TITP was established in April 1993, when the Japanese government made systemic reforms intended to consolidate various small and scattered internship and training visa programs which had dated back from the 1950s. In the official discourse used by the Japanese government, the TITP is classified as part of Japan’s overseas development assistance program, aiming at the objective of transferring Japanese technology and expertise to “less-developed” neighbouring countries through internship and training. However, in reality, technical intern trainees have been an integral part of the labour force that maintains the Japanese economy for almost three decades. Majority of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, manufacturing and construction cannot survive without TITP workers. Employers employ TITP workers as labourers, and workers migrate to Japan through TITP to work, yet the Japanese government has refused to officially call them “migrant workers” while critics have expressed scepticism of this representation of the TITP as a “charitable system,” claiming that the real motive of the government for admitting foreign trainees is to exploit their cheap labour. 

Similarly, International students also play crucial roles in the Japanese workforce. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) allows international students to engage in part-time jobs of up to 28 hours a week during academic terms and 40 hours a week during holiday periods. Some recruitment agencies and schools use this scheme to recruit students who wish to work in Japan. They have filled the labour shortages in the retail and service industries, and the majority of them are enrolled in language and vocational institutions, rather than universities. Like technical intern trainees, international students in the workforce illustrate the Japanese government’s strategy to recruit migrant labour through channels that do not appear to be an admission of “migrant workers”.

These contradictions create the situations where the workers’ labour rights are often dismissed or not fully fulfilled. Because of the term used as “internship” or “trainees”, many governments of origin countries do not treat TITP under the labour ministry. For example, in India, which is an emerging origin country of TITP workers (particularly from the Northeast region of the country), the main counterpart of the Japanese government for TITP is the ministry and agencies that are in charge of vocational training rather than those in charge of labour or manpower. In Indonesia, although TITP is under the Ministry of Manpower, the Migrant Workers Protection Law does not include TITP workers as the scheme is considered as a “training” program. In 2019 and 2020, BEBESEA and HRWG conducted a study on the pre-departure process of Indonesian migrant workers to Japan, that highlights these issues – the report is available here

Due to the precarious conditions, TITP is often described as a system that allows the state to facilitate labour exploitation or trafficking in persons. The US Department of States’ report on trafficking in persons every year highlights this issue. In this year’s report again, it points out that “within TITP, the government’s memoranda of cooperation with sending countries remained ineffective in preventing foreign-based labor recruitment agencies from charging excessive fees—a key driver of debt-based coercion among TITP participants—and the government did not take any measures to hold recruiters and employers accountable for labor trafficking crimes under this system” and recommend a number of amendments in prevention of trafficking under TITP and Specified Skilled Workers (SSW) scheme, which is the next stage of working programme available for those who have completed TITP and met certain criteria. 

Given these backgrounds, the government of Japan a few weeks ago announced that it had a plan to conduct a full-scaled review on TITP. This was the first time the government officially recognised the contradictions of the programme. Civil society actors in Japan, particularly of those migrant rights organisations are closely monitoring this and I hope that G20 member states as well as civil societies of these countries will also get involved in the monitoring. I hope that after the full-scale review, there will be a proper system to be in place recognising all workers as workers with human rights, full employment rights including access to social protection, replacing the current TITP.  

Looking back 2021 G20 Labour and Employment Ministerial Declaration

The 2021 G20 Labour and Employment Ministerial meeting under the Italian Presidency, focused on three broad, interconnected pillars of action: People, Planet, Prosperity.  As a result, in the Ministerial Declaration acknowledging the COVID-19 Pandemic as a major impact on the global economy as well as our societies and has exacerbated inequalities worldwide, the ministers stated;

“We recognise the need for a coherent and human-centred policy approach that leads to greater social justice and decent work for all.”

I would like to review the three main topics that were highlighted in this declaration compared with the situations around labour migration and trafficking in persons in Japan and beyond.

  1. More, better, and equally paid jobs for women

The 2021 Declaration states; 

“We will continue to promote policies that increase the quantity and quality of women’s employment, ensure equal opportunities and achieve better outcomes in the labour market, promote a more even distribution of women and men across sectors and occupations, tackle the gender pay gap, promote a more balanced distribution of paid and unpaid work between women and men, and address discrimination and gender stereotypes in the labour market.”

One of the issues to be highlighted is the rights of pregnant migrant women and reproductive rights of women migrant workers. Although under the Japanese Labour Standards Act, all women workers including migrant workers and those under TITP’s reproductive and maternity rights are protected equally.  However, in reality, it is not uncommon for employers and agencies to force pregnant workers to terminate their contracts, and it is more familiar among women workers who are migrant and/or with temporary employment status to face maternity discrimination often known as “mata-hara” or maternity harassment. Migrant women workers face fear of losing their jobs and being forced to return home when they find themselves pregnant. There have been a number of heart-breaking incidents involving deaths of still-born or new-born babies caused by mothers’ fear or lack of knowledge about their rights.

Japan ranks 116th of 146 countries in the 2022 Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, lowest among all other countries in East or Southeast Asia, after improving from 120th in 2021. Japan has a huge gender gap particularly in political participation – women consist of only 9.7% in all the Lower House members of the Japanese National Diet (Parliament). The lack of political will to address gender-based issues that are faced women and girls as well as people of marginalised genders and sexual orientations continues to hinder more, better and equally paid jobs for women.

  1. Social protection systems in a changing world of work

The 2021 Declaration states; 

“We will explore policy options and build institutional capacity, in accordance with national circumstances, to make contributory systems more accessible, strengthen social protection floors and make social protection adequate, inclusive, sustainable, effective, and accessible to all.”

In Japan, like most countries, access to social protection mostly depends on immigration or citizenship status of individuals – there is almost no rights to social protection for undocumented migrants – as BEBESEA highlighted in its study conducted in seven main destination countries in East and Southeast Asia. Many TITP workers become undocumented, after their contract ended or they escape from exploitative working conditions, often being pointed out to be due to debts they accumulated for paying high recruitment/placement fees. Despite them being excluded from social protection, issues of undocumented migrant workers have not been addressed by G20 Labour and Employment Ministries Meeting so far.

Other speakers mentioned about recent crisis of refugees and displaced people; it is also important to highlight that there have been discriminatory treatments applied for people fleeing conflicts and persecutions. Currently there are strong initiatives from the Japanese government as well as private actors in supporting evacuees from Ukraine including access to social protection, education and work。However, the same level of treatments are not implemented for people who are also fleeing conflicts from countries such as Afghanistan or Myanmar without satisfactory explanation to the differences. 

  1. Working patterns, business organisation and production process in the Digitalisation Era

This part of the declaration addresses the needs for ensured decent work and better work-life balance in the changes of working environment to more remote and digitalised settings.  However, it failed to address how technologies have been used to traffic and exploit vulnerable groups of people and workers as highlighted by 2022 World Day Against Trafficking in Persons, whose theme was “use and abuse of technology, highlighted the role of technology as tool that van both enable and impede human trafficking. I hope that this year’s G20 Employment and Labour Ministerial Meeting under the residency of Indonesia will shed rights on the role of technology in tackling issues of trafficking in person and labour exploitation and discuss how to tackle labour rights violation against the most vulnerable groups of workers. 

In the context of Japan, I would also like to point out that the country lags well behind in tackling forced labour as well as modern slavery etc. and there are still a lot of efforts to be made. As an example, Japan became the 177th Member State to ratify the ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No. 105) only a month ago. The country has not yet ratified another core convention of ILO, 1958 Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (No. 111). 

Personal Notes and Reflection Although I am representing the BEBESEA as its co-founder in this occasion, I am also the Executive Director of Southeast and East Asian Centre (SEEAC), a grass-roots organisation for and by migrants, refugees and people seeking asylum as well as people of these heritages, based in the UK. While there have been increasing trends of and interests in issues faced by Indonesian agricultural workers in UK, I often observe the issues faced by migrant workers all over the world are continuation of the colonial system – the system that makes benefits from resources and labour of the others; issues of labour migration and trafficking is colonialism that is brought back home of the “colonisers” whether it is the UK, Japan or other destination countries. I believe it is important, particularly from civil society perspectives, how we can also challenge this within the G20 framework and de-colonise the dialogues in this platform; by identifying and challenging the assumptions, ideas, values, and practices that reflect a dominating influence and especially an economic dominating influence in the framework. From the perspectives of BEBESEA as a cross-regional network, I believe that G20 can be a strategic framework for the civil society’s advocacy in the area of labour migration and trafficking in persons because the membership includes a number of major migrant labour sourcing countries and of course destination countries. The presidency of Indonesia is particularly strategic as an active player in addressing the rights of migrant workers to bring real changes in both civil society and government led initiatives.

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