Foreign interns in Hiroshima face illegal hours and unpaid overtime

Extended working hours and unpaid overtime are increasingly imposed on non-Japanese technical trainees at some tailoring companies in eastern Hiroshima Prefecture, according to an investigation by the Chugoku Shimbun.

Experts say the situation is just the tip of the iceberg, illustrating how vulnerable interns bear the brunt of the economic fallout from a declining clothing market in their country.

The investigation found that interns regularly had to perform over 100 hours of overwork per month, well beyond the limit allowed by law. And, in many cases, they were paid hourly overtime pay that was only half the standard minimum wage.

The eastern parts of Hiroshima have traditionally thrived on textile businesses centered on the native cotton fabric known as Bingo-gasuri. Although fewer in number than before, sewing factories still dot the region.

Chugoku Shimbun spoke with several Vietnamese interns employed by three different companies in the region, who recounted their experiences of being forced to work long hours and denied proper overtime pay.

According to three of them, who have worked at one of the companies since 2017, they were only allowed to take two days off per month on average and worked up to 150 extra hours per month until that time. that their workload is reduced after the drop in orders due to the pandemic.

Their payment for overtime was split into two – official and unofficial.

In June, for example, when one of them worked an extra 127 hours and 30 minutes, it was recorded as 20 hours on paper with a wage calculated according to the minimum hourly wage of 871, bringing her take-home pay total to about ¥ 125,000. The remaining overtime over 100 hours was then calculated at a rate of 450 per hour, and she received about 45,000 in an envelope.

The Labor Standards Act imposes a cap of 45 hours on monthly overtime, stipulating that these hours must be paid at a rate greater than or equal to 1.25 times the regular wage – a rule that also applies to interns foreign techniques.

The Chugoku Shimbun investigation found that the three companies forced all interns to nearly 100 hours of overwork each month. But on paper, they had significantly underestimated the numbers, by 10 to 30 hours, to avoid documenting that they had broken the law. They then paid the undocumented overtime at a lower rate.

In July, technical trainees who worked for the three companies took their cases to a union and, through them, asked the companies for unpaid overtime.

Contacted by Chugoku Shimbun, the president of one of the companies admitted to defaulting on overtime payments in the past and said he promised two interns that they would be reimbursed.

The president, however, also underlined that the company no longer flouts labor law, and that there had been a first “verbal” agreement with the trainees according to which their overtime would be calculated at 400 to 450 per hour.

“If we paid them properly, their illegally long hours of overwork would come to light. These interns want to work as much overtime as possible for the sake of money. That’s why I gave them as much as possible in a low-key way, ”said the president, describing subterfuge as common in the sewing industry.

Behind the prevalence of such malpractice lurks the bleak prospects for the domestic clothing market.

The advent of the fast fashion industry, which produces products at low prices, resulted in the displacement of an increasing number of mass production factories abroad and, in turn, the shrinking of the market. clothing in the country. Garment manufacturers have not increased the amount they pay to tailoring companies, making conditions worse in the industry.

“Fewer and fewer Japanese want to work in such an industry, leaving us all the more reliant on non-Japanese interns. Unless manufacturers no longer offer compensation for production, the vicious cycle will continue, ”an industry insider said.

According to the Ministry of Labor, out of 782 textile and clothing companies it sanctioned in 2018 for the treatment of foreign interns, 155, or around 20 percent, were targeted for overtime violations, which resulted in proven to be the most prevalent form of misconduct.

Five other industries that similarly employ large numbers of non-Japanese interns, such as construction and agriculture, also each recorded an above-average percentage of long-hour and overtime violations.

Chieko Kanbayashi, a professor at Hosei University with in-depth knowledge of the technical internship program, described the Hiroshima cases as the “tip of the iceberg” and an “inherent structural problem in the industry”.

“The coronavirus pandemic is making things even more difficult for the clothing industry. I’m afraid that interns will pay the price for all of this and fall victim to more of these problems, ”she warned.

This monthly column focuses on topics and issues covered by the Chugoku Shimbun, the largest newspaper in the Chugoku region. The original article was published on August 8.

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