TOKYO — The great escape of former Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn and his tirade against Japan’s system of “hostage justice” may have grabbed the global spotlight, but there are many more foreign workers trapped in Japan who cannot find a way to leave.
A new legal case brought by a 30-year-old Filipina woman is throwing more attention on one of Japan’s more disquieting secrets: many employers keep hold of the passports of foreign workers here, especially Asians in low-status jobs, and refuse to return them even if the employee wants to leave the company, lawyers and labor rights activists say.
Effectively the workers are trapped in low-paid jobs where they may be bullied or abused but are unable to even seek employment elsewhere because their passports are kept hostage.
“The fact that the company keeps the employees’ passports in their custody and makes them work corresponds to forced labor, which is not allowed in Japanese law,” lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki told a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) on Thursday.
Coming just after Japan passed a new immigration law supposedly to attract more foreign workers and fill the gaps created by an aging domestic workforce, the case throws a harsh spotlight on the reality of employment here for many Asians.
The woman, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, learned Japanese at a language school from April 2017 until May 2019, before deciding she wanted to stay and work here, according to Makoto Iwahashi of labor rights group POSSE.
Picking up a flier at the immigration office in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo, she visited a local immigration law firm for advice on how to convert her visa into a working one.
The firm offered her a job as a translator. She surrendered her passport, college transcript and college diploma so the company could process her visa application, signing a form in Japanese — that she didn’t understand — giving her employer the right to keep them indefinitely, even if she quits working there.
After a month at the company, she discovered she was only being paid 100,000 yen ($910) a month, less than she needed to live on. When she asked to leave and for the return of her passport, the company responded by saying, “if it’s returned to you, then you’re going to run away,” she said.
“I felt so worried and I just didn’t know what to do,” she said in a video shown at the FCCJ. “I’m afraid what would happen to me if I don’t have those documents. My passport is my personal identity. How can I find a job or even to go back to my country if I don’t have it?”
With financial support from POSSE, the woman filed a lawsuit in Yokohama on Jan. 16 for the return of her passport and graduation documents, as well as for unpaid wages and compensation for damages.
Iwahashi and Ibusuki say they hope the case will force Japan’s government to change the law to protect vulnerable foreign workers.
The government enacted legislation in 2017 to protect the rights of foreign workers admitted under a technical intern training program, including banning employers from retaining passports, after a series of civil cases, but failed to extend the protection to other foreign workers or foreign language students.
Ibusuki said business operators in Japan “very often” keep the passports and graduation certificates of foreign workers to curb employees’ demands, silence protests against misconduct and prevent them quitting.
The practice is also common at language schools in Japan, he said, to prevent students from changing schools. Ibusuki said 30 Vietnamese students had visited his law firm only last week, complaining that their language school was withholding their passports, with another 30 in the same situation.
Iwahashi also said the problem was “very, very prevalent,” but underreported.
Japan passed a new immigration law in December 2018 that aims to attract 345,000 foreign workers over five years, but critics say the law fails to protect the rights of foreign workers or deal with questions of social inclusion.
The law was a response to Japan’s demographic decline — a slow-burning crisis caused by a low fertility rate, shrinking workforce and aging population that places a huge future burden on the economy as the tax base shrinks and the number of dependents grows. Many industries already face labor shortages, especially in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Ibusuki said he testified at a parliamentary hearing for the immigration law in late 2018, and warned that if the country wanted to attract more foreign workers it needed to protect their rights.
“But the government, as well as the parties in power, did not listen to my opinion,” he said. “Most politicians are not interested in this issue.”
There is a wider problem with workers’ rights in Japan’s highly stratified society, but foreign workers are particularly vulnerable when their passports are taken, because they don’t have the money — or the time to stay in Japan — to fight long court battles with their employers.
Ibusuki and Iwahashi said companies were well aware of that, and were taking advantage.
“They calculate how much it’s going to cost to hire a lawyer, how much it’s going to cost to get your passport issued,” said Iwahashi. “And they’re doing this intentionally and deliberately.”
The Filipina woman even struggled to get a replacement passport issued by her embassy, Iwahashi said, “In order to get it reissued, it had to be lost or stolen,” he said. “And for it to be reissued as lost or stolen, you had to get a police report.”
Eventually, after multiple visits, the embassy agreed to issue a new passport within the next few months, he said.