Japan approves enhanced Foreign Trainee Program with stronger rights protection

The Japanese government has greenlit a new policy to overhaul its existing trainee program for foreigners, aiming to bolster rights protection while offering greater flexibility in job changes and increased oversight.

Japan has approved a comprehensive overhaul aimed at bolstering rights protection and tightening oversight. The decision, announced after a ministerial meeting, reflects a concerted effort by the government to rectify issues plaguing the existing Technical Intern Training Program, which has been criticized for facilitating labour exploitation and human rights abuses.

The revamped program, which follows proposals put forth by a government panel and takes into account discussions within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, marks a significant shift in Japan’s approach to welcoming foreign workers. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized the importance of creating an environment where foreign talent feels valued and respected, signalling a commitment to fostering a more inclusive and equitable labour market.

Key features of the new program include enhanced rights for trainees, such as the ability to change jobs after one year of employment. This represents a departure from the stringent rules of the previous program, which largely prohibited job transfers and left many trainees vulnerable to exploitation. However, concerns about potential urban migration prompted policymakers to impose a two-year maximum limit on job transfers, particularly in regions with better employment opportunities.

Moreover, trainees will be required to demonstrate basic proficiency in Japanese, underscoring the government’s emphasis on language acquisition and integration. This requirement not only facilitates smoother communication in the workplace but also fosters social cohesion and cultural exchange.

To address systemic issues and prevent abuses, supervising organizations will undergo reforms and stricter oversight. These entities, tasked with monitoring companies that accept foreign trainees, will be renamed “supervisory support organizations” and required to appoint external auditors. This measure aims to enhance transparency and accountability within the program, ensuring that participating companies adhere to labour standards and regulations.

In addition to procedural changes, the government is considering measures to revoke permanent residency status from foreigners who fail to fulfil tax and social insurance obligations. This underscores Japan’s commitment to upholding legal and financial responsibilities and promoting compliance among foreign residents.

The revamped program also provides a pathway for trainees to transition to the specified skilled worker system, introduced in 2019. This initiative offers longer stays of up to five years and the possibility of obtaining permanent residency, providing greater stability and opportunities for career advancement.

With approximately 358,000 foreign technical interns currently in Japan, the new program seeks to strike a balance between addressing labour shortages and safeguarding the rights and well-being of foreign workers. By implementing comprehensive reforms and strengthening oversight mechanisms, Japan aims to create a more inclusive and ethical framework for foreign labour participation, ensuring a fair and equitable environment for all workers.