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KAIZU, Japan – When Chinese textile worker Wang Ming Zhi heard he could more than triple his income with a three-year stint working in Japan as an apprentice, he eagerly paid a broker $7,300 in fees and deposit money.
From afar, Japan seemed a model of prosperity and order. Japanese government backing of the training program he would enter the country under helped ease worries about going abroad. But when he joined the ranks of 150,000 other interns from poor Asian countries working in Japan, Wang was in for a series of shocks.
Promised a clothing factory job, the 25-year-old wound up at a huge warehouse surrounded by rice paddies where he was told to fill boxes with clothing, toys and other goods. Wang and other new arrivals weren't given contracts by their Japanese boss and monthly wages were withheld, except for overtime.
Anyone who didn't like the conditions could return to China, their boss told them. But then Wang would have lost most of his deposit. And how could he face his family, who were counting on sharing in the $40,000 he hoped he would earn for three years work.
"We didn't have any choice but to stay," Wang said from his bunk in a cramped house he shared with a dozen others in Kaizu, a small city in central Gifu prefecture.
Wang's story is not unusual. Faced with a shrinking workforce and tight restrictions on immigration, Japanese employers such as small companies, farms and fisheries are plugging labor shortages by relying on interns from China, Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia. The training program is intended to help developing countries by upgrading the technical expertise of their workers but critics say it is abused by some employers who see it as a source of cheap labor.
Employers committing violations such as failing to pay wages numbered 197 last year, down more than half from 452 in 2008, according to Japanese officials. Lawyers and labor activists say the true number is many times higher and interns fear being sent home if they speak up despite government attempts to prevent abuses.
In interviews with The Associated Press, eight current and former interns described being cheated of wages, forced to work overtime, having contracts withheld or being charged exorbitant rents for cramped, poorly insulated housing. Some said they were prohibited from owning cellphones. The internship system has been criticized by the U.N. and the U.S. State Department, which in its annual "Trafficking in Persons Report" said Japan is failing to stop cases of forced labor.
"The program is portrayed as way to transfer technology, and that Japan is doing a wonderful thing, but in reality many are working like slaves," said Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer who has represented several interns in court cases.
Some say the plight of the interns highlights the need for Japan to rethink its deep-seated resistance to immigration, out of sheer economic necessity. A government institute projects Japan's workforce will plummet by nearly half to 44 million over the next 50 years as the population ages and birthrates remain low. At that rate, many companies will run out of workers. Foreign workers and first generation immigrants make up less than 2 percent of Japan's workforce. In the United States, the percentage is 14.2 percent, and in Germany it is 11.7 percent, according to U.N. figures.
Unions and others have called for the training program, established in 1993, to be abolished and replaced with a formal system for employment of foreign workers. That will better meet the demand for low-skilled laborers as young Japanese flock to the cities and shun work that is dirty, dangerous or difficult, they say.
"We need to stop the deception," said Ippei Torii, vice president of ZWU All United Workers Union, which has battled on behalf of interns. "If we need to bring in foreign workers, then we should call them workers and treat them so."
Hidenori Sakanaka, former chief of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau who has become a champion for immigration, said Japan needs 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years or its economy will collapse.
"That's really our only salvation," said Sakanaka, now head of a think tank. "We should allow them to enter the country on the assumption that they could become residents of Japan."
The chances of that happening are low. Immigration is perceived as a threat to Japan's prized social harmony, and opponents paint scenarios of rising crime and other problems.
About 20 years ago, Japan granted special visas to Latin Americans of Japanese descent but many had difficult fitting in. After the 2008 global financial crisis they were offered money to return home.
The training program got public attention earlier this year after a Chinese intern stabbed to death his boss and another Japanese employee at a fishery in Hiroshima but its ongoing problems have not been front page news.
The government strengthened laws covering the program in 2010, including prohibiting trainees from paying deposits to labor brokers. Japanese employers are expected to pay the third-party agencies. A panel of experts and officials is reviewing the program again to see if it needs further changes.
"There are some who go against the objectives of this program and use it as a source of cheap labor," said Jun Nakamura, an immigration bureau official. "We have tried to strengthen the legal framework."
After not receiving their regular wages for 16 months, Wang and about a dozen others at the distribution company in Gifu confronted their boss, Akiyoshi Shibata, demanding their back pay. They said he gave them a choice: return to China or drop their complaints, apologize and stay on.
Wang and three others chose to go home. A few days later they were taken to the airport, where Shibata paid them each 750,000 yen ($7,500), barely enough to cover the broker fee, according to Zhen Kai, an official with the Gifu Ippan Labor Union who helped in negotiations between the two sides.
In a phone interview, Shibata said he withheld 50,000 yen (about $500) every month from each trainee's wages for the first year as a security deposit due to problems in the past, including cases where trainees ran away. He said he paid the remaining regular wages on time and in the end paid them all they had earned.
After "all this trouble," Shibata said he has decided against using foreign interns any more.
"I think it may be better to scrap the program since there's a risk both sides will just be unhappy."