November 20, 2014 – The first word Mr En learned when he started work on a construction site in Japan after moving from China was “baka” – “idiot”.
The 31-year-old farmer is one of 50,000 Chinese who signed up for a scheme run by the Japanese government that promises to allow foreigners to earn money while they train on the job. Like many of his compatriots, he hoped to leave Japan with cash in his pocket and a new set of skills that would give him greater chance of getting work at home.
“My Japanese colleagues would always say ‘baka’ to me,” said En, who spoke on condition that his full name was not revealed. “I am exhausted physically and mentally.” His problem is not the bullying by Japanese colleagues, nor the two-hour each-way commute or the mind-numbing work that largely consists of breaking apart bits of old buildings.
It is the one million yen (US$8,700) he borrowed to take part in the programme, apparently to cover travelling expenses and other “fees” charged by middlemen – which has left him a virtual slave to Japan’s labour-hungry construction industry. “I cannot go back before I make enough money to repay the debt,” he said.
Rapidly ageing Japan is desperately short of workers to pay the taxes to fund pensions and healthcare for its growing grey population, but it is almost constitutionally allergic to immigration.
Less than two per cent of the population is classed as “non-Japanese”, the government says. By comparison, around 13 per cent of UK residents are foreign born. The result for Japan, say critics, is ranks of poorly protected employees brought in through the national back door, ripe for abuse and exploitation.
“This trainee programme is a system of slave labour,” says Ippei Torii, director of the Solidarity Network With Migrants Japan, a non-governmental group supporting foreign workers. “You cannot just quit and leave,” he said. “It’s a system of human trafficking, forced labour.”
Around a quarter of Japan’s 127-million population is aged 65 or over, according to recent government figures. This proportion is expected to rise to 40 per cent over the coming decades. The already-heavily indebted government – which owes creditors more than twice what the economy is worth every year – is scrabbling to find the money to pay for the burgeoning ranks of elderly, who contribute little in tax but cost a lot in welfare and health.
A far-below-replacement birthrate of around 1.4 children per woman is heaping further pressure on the population. In most developed nations, this kind of shortfall is plugged by immigration, but Japan allows no unskilled workers into the country, amid fears they would threaten the culture of consensus.