MANILA and ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—Filipinos with expired trainee visas are emerging to form the majority of “overstayers” in the Land of the Rising Sun as their applications for refugee status have been rejected by Japan’s Ministry of Justice.
Having a refugee status is one way for Filipino trainees under Japan’s Technical Intern Training Program (TITP) to prolong their stay and allow them time to find other methods to continually work in Japan.
This trainee-to-refugee route puts the residency status of Filipino workers in peril, analysts the OFW Journalism Consortium talked to said. Some analysts also believe the post-TITP route for foreign workers increases overstaying becoming a common theme in Japan’s migration phenomenon.
This development under the 25-year-old TITP is the program’s latest challenge on top of alleged labor abuses heaped by Japanese employers unto foreign workers over the years. This was revealed by an announcement last February 27 by the Ministry of Justice that 341 foreigners—including 46 Filipinos—were detained by the immigration bureaus of Tokyo and Nagoya. The arrests from November 1 to December 6 last year were seen as the first steps to crack down on asylum seekers.
The Japan Times reported those arrested were either awaiting the Justice Ministry’s decision on their refugee status, were overstaying, or were doing activities other than those stipulated in their Japanese visas.
LAST year’s crackdown revealed there was an exponential rise of refugee applications in Japan in the past three years. From 2015 to 2017, a total of 38,115 applications for asylum were lodged by foreigners from over-70 countries.
The approved applications for those three years? Only 75, or 0.19 percent.
Last year saw a record 19,628 applicants and only 20 applications. Filipinos became the number one applicant group by nationality with 4,895.
In 2015, Filipinos are among the top ten by nationality who applied for refugee status. The following year, Filipinos became the third-biggest source of applications by country of origin. No asylum application by Filipino was approved in those three years.
Analysts say most of the Filipino applicants are technical interns. But these applicants for refugee status are willing to wait: processing refugee applications takes ten months on average.
The Japan Times reported a final conclusion for an applicant takes years before he or she can submit an appeal of resubmit an application for asylum.
TITP foreigners cannot change their status when their trainee contracts expire “or even during their trainee period,” Sociologist Chiho Ogaya of Ferris University in Yokohama said. “Besides, basically they can’t come back to Japan as TI [technical intern].”
Joselito Jimenez of Osaka City University concurs, citing Japan’s Refugee Policy. “Former TITP workers with expired visas who apply for (refugee status) are not eligible to get it.”
JAPAN has been giving work permits for asylum seekers. This gives refugee applicants six months to work after they lodged their applications for refugee status, as a form of assistance during the refugee screening process.
Japan has been doing this for seven years beginning 2010. But starting this year, there will now be limits to the granting of these work permits, according to the Justice Ministry.
This reform measure also complements a new policy on “simplified” processing of asylum applications: from ten months waiting period to two months, Japan Times reported.
The applicants are in categories such as international students, the trainees or those on short-term visits to Japan.
Quoting sources from the Ministry, Japan Times wrote that asylum applicants will be classified into three sub-groups: those with a “high possibility” of being recognized as a refugee, those seen to be “clearly not genuinely seeking asylum,” and those repeat applicants.
Beginning this year applicants who are placed under the last two sub-groups are candidates for deportation. Applicants could only hope the Justice Ministry cannot immediately determine if the applicant under this new simplified processing system should be recognized as a refugee. This means the assessment of the individual applicant continues; so would her or his stay in Japan.
The new simplified system will avoid unnecessary waiting time for asylum applicants, the Japan Times quoted a government official as saying.
THERE is actually another way for foreign workers to remain in Japan: the “special permission to stay” (which Ogaya refers to as a “special kind of amnesty [that] might be given upon the request of undocumented migrants in Japan.”)
The Justice Ministry’s website link on the special permission stipulate five “positive elements” to consider a special permit application:
A person familiar with the matter told the OFW Journalism Consortium there’s a “well-known tactic” to extending one’s stay “by force” after visa expiration.
This could be done through applying for another visa status a few days before a foreigner’s visa application expires. This method is widely used by overstaying Filipinos, called “bilog” or round in street parlance.
Once there is a pending application, “one can stay up to a maximum of 60 days after your visa expires,” said the person who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“If a decision comes before that maximum of 60 days, the tactic is to just apply again for another status, allowing (one) to fully utilize the 60-day maximum extension period,” the person said.
Immigration officials seem to be aware of this “tactic” or “visa renewal system” by foreigners, according to the person. “This visa renewal system is designed in a way that the 60-day extension after expiration is actually never claimed, except by those whose intent is really to exploit this feature. This is because the system allows a visa renewal to be filled a full 90 days before expiration,” the person explained.
Renewals typically take 31 days to about 45 days, which is beneficial for foreigners who “legitimately need” that renewal.
Foreigners seeking and waiting for an approved refugee application do such measures “to survive,” Ando Isamu of the Tokyo-based Jesuit Social Center Migrant Desk said. In all these measures to await for successful applicants, Isamu, a Jesuit priest, adds the foreigners are disallowed to work.
THE rising number of applicants for refugee status could be traced to an old program under the TITP.
According to a document from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan, this program “aims to contribute to developing countries by accepting people from [other] countries for a certain period of time [maximum of five years] and transferring skills through OJT [on-the-job training].”
Japan works with identified countries, the Philippines included, in recruiting trainees through memoranda of cooperation. These agreements are processed by the Japan International Training Organization Cooperation (Jitco) as the “supervising organization” and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (Poea).
On the Philippine side, a recruitment agency, referred as an accredited “sending organization,” searches for workers. These candidates are screened and secure approval from the POEA prior to departure. On the Japan side, companies request for trainees, which Jitco relays to partner countries.
The TITP was designed as requests from Japanese businesspeople for more workers have nagged the Japanese government since the program’s founding in 1993.
As of the end of April 2016, 74 job categories, covering 133 jobs, are eligible for the TITP. These jobs are in agriculture, fisheries, construction, food manufacturing, textile, machinery and metals, and “others” like furniture making, book binding, painting, and welding.
Some migration analysts like Benjamin San Jose of Ateneo de Manila University think Japan does not call foreign trainees as “guest workers.”
Thus, these trainees are “not protected by (Japanese) labor laws,” San Jose posted in a university-hosted blog entry last year. “The TITP still calls its foreign workers as technical interns and not as foreign guest workers.”
Filipino and foreign migrant policy analysts like San Jose and even leading Japanese media have long called for reforms to the TITP given reported cases of labor abuse, non-payment of salaries and in some cases death from overwork or karoshi. [see related story: “Can’t Japan have a guest-worker program?”]
THE Japanese government had revamped the TITP and launched a new program in April last year. With the reported labor rights cases facing foreign trainees, the TITP now has an oversight body to inspect compliance by Japanese companies to labor regulations: the Organization for Technical Intern Training or OTIT.
The Japanese government then went back to its country partners and forged new memoranda of cooperation under the new TITP. The Philippine Department Labor and Employment, under current Secretary Silvestre Bello III, forged the MOC with Japanese counterparts last November 21, 2017.
There are even specific TITP arrangements for specific occupations. The latest one, anchored on the new MOC, was the “Human Resource Development Model Project 2017” targeting construction workers. Filipino construction trainees in this program must undergo internship of three months to four months. The new TITP extended the internship period for a maximum of three years.
These Filipino trainees have to return to the Philippines as they will be re-trained by the Philippine-based Construction Manpower Development Foundation.
Supposed to bring back the skills they learned in the Japan, these trainees however are seen by Japanese employers as “disposable labor,” Ogaya told the OFW Journalism Consortium.
IN the early years of Japan’s TITP, the Philippine supervising organization was the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority through the JITCO-TESDA “Skills and Technology Transfer” project. But through Department Order 106 signed by then Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz in 2010, managing TITP-related affairs was transferred to the Poea.
In 2015, still under the old TITP, the POEA issued two memoranda circular (MC 10 and MC10A) for trainees who are construction workers (construction TITP under Japan’s “Foreign Construction Worker Acceptance Program”) and shipbuilders (shipbuilding TITP under a “Foreign Shipbuilding Worker Acceptance Program”).
Shipbuilding and construction workers were supposed to stay in Japan up to two years only. If they returned to the Philippines a year after completing the CTITP and STITP, they were allowed to stay “as a technical intern and foreign construction worker / foreign shipbuilding worker” for a maximum of five years.
Filipino trainees deployed under these old TITP arrangements can remain until the expiration date of their period of stay. Meanwhile, Japanese companies with good records under the TITP can grant its foreign trainees up to five years of stay in Japan.
THERE are measures to “protect” interns under the new TITP.
Supervising organizations have stringent accreditation of sending organizations. Jail sentences for violating Japanese labor laws are also to be meted out. A hotline was also set up that foreign interns can contact to report labor-related cases.
Nevertheless, the OTIT faces daunting challenges to address labor violations.
In 2016, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported that 70 percent of some 5,670 Japanese firms were found to have committed violations like extended working hours, occupational safety and underpaid wages.
And with about 228,589 trainees as of end-2016 (including 22,674 Filipinos), the TITP faced a rising number of complaints from both leading Japanese companies and non-government organizations.
There are also profit-seekers who bend the TITP to serve their interest, according to POEA Administrator Bernard P. Olalia.
Olalia has warned of a tourist-to-refugee illegal recruitment scheme done reportedly via social media and with cash involved.
He urges Filipino trainees with expired visas to “return to the country.” They know the limits of the program, Olalia said.
JEREMAIAH OPINIANO reporting from Adelaide, Australia.
HENRY ABUEVA reporting from Manila
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