Bento-maker sets example with language lessons for Vietnamese trainees

As the number of foreign trainees working in the Kamikawa region of central Hokkaido increases, problems are emerging regarding how they are treated, with many trainees receiving low wages and even running away. But some companies are offering care and support.

A bento-maker in Asahikawa, central Hokkaido, provides support such as giving them Japanese lessons.

“When should I take out combustible waste?” “You can take out combustible waste on Wednesday mornings.”

Conversations such as this take place in Japanese during lessons at Asahikawa Ekitachiuri Shokai . The classes are offered by the company to 17 Vietnamese women working there as foreign trainees cooking rice and other food items used in bento.

Le Phuong Thu (second from left) gives a Japanese lesson to Vietnamese technical interns at Asahikawa Ekitachiuri Shokai in Asahikawa, Hokkaido.

The firm started the classes in June last year. A roughly 50-minute lesson is given to the trainees twice a month during work hours, and those who wish can take an additional one-hour lesson once a week on their day off.

Le Phuong Thu, a 25-year-old Vietnamese woman who gives the lessons, studied Japanese for about two years at a Japanese-language school run by the municipal government of neighboring Higashikawa. After teaching Japanese at the firm for three months as a part-time worker, she became a full-time employee in October.

She currently stays in Japan with an engineer/specialist in humanities/international services status of residence, which allows her to continue working by renewing the visa.
“The trainees are gradually becoming able to express what they want to say,” she said happily.

Le Thi Tam, 26, who is in charge of cooking rice at the company, is in her fourth year working as a technical intern. Thanks to the lessons, her Japanese skills have improved and now she can talk with other employees and read kanji.
Last year, she passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test’s second most advanced level of N2.

“After I go back to my home country, I want to work for a company that uses Japanese,” she said.

Asked why the company hires a full-time employee to teach Japanese to foreign trainees, Takayuki Iwai, 42, the company’s president, said, “That is good for both the company and the trainees themselves.”

Iwai said that if their Japanese-language skills improve, it will be easier for them to communicate and work, and that they will have more job opportunities after they return to Vietnam.

“It will be beneficial for the future of trainees, including by helping to raise their wages,” he said.

The firm also publishes an in-house newsletter translated into Vietnamese by Le Phuong Thu.
Last year, the firm organized sightseeing tours to Biei and Furano in Hokkaido. The trainees who took part in the tours sent photographs to their families and posted them on social media, showing they are enjoying life in Japan.

“I hope they will think it was good coming to Japan and come to like the country,” Iwai stressed.

In coming to Japan, many of the trainees left their husband or children in Vietnam.
Yumiko Sato, 67, an official of the company’s general affairs division, supports the trainees by arranging places to live and accompanying them to the hospital.

“I hope they will enjoy learning while they are in Japan,” Sato said.

In the fiscal year beginning April 2020, there were 722 foreign trainees in the Kamikawa region, according to the Hokkaido government.

Although the figure dropped 6% from the previous year due to COVID-19 entry restrictions, it was 1.6 times the amount five years earlier. The number is expected to keep rising amid labor shortages, and it is urgently needed to ensure the trainees are better treated.

By industrial sector, 274 worked for the construction industry in fiscal 2020, the largest number, followed by 231 who worked in the agriculture sector.

While those who worked in agriculture topped the list in the previous year, those working in construction appear to have increased due to rising demand related to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

They were followed by 109 trainees who worked in the food production sector.
Kazuhiko Sato, 78, head of the Hokkaido Vietnam Exchange Association’s Asahikawa branch, said, “Company management is becoming serious about improving (foreign trainees’) skills by teaching them about high-level technologies.”

Their wages have generally been rising in recent years. However, issues remain, with some companies failing to pay them fair wages.

According to the Hokkaido Labor Bureau, out of the 272 companies in Hokkaido that the organization inspected in 2020 regarding foreign trainees, 189, or 70%, were instructed to make improvements.

Out of the 189 companies, 14.7% did not pay fairly for overtime work and 12.1% did not pay wages as contracted.

Data from the Immigration Services Agency shows that nationwide more than 5,000 foreign trainees went missing in Japan in 2015, and the number rose to some 9,000 in 2018.

In 2020, 5,885 trainees went missing, out of which 154 did so in Hokkaido. Vietnamese topped that list by nationality.

Foreign trainees are burdened with debt, as they pay a large amount in commission to brokers for introducing them to trainee dispatch agencies in their countries.

Because of brokers’ insufficient explanations, many trainees feel there is a gap between what they expected and the actual work or wages they get after coming to Japan, according to a source well-versed in foreign workers issues.

Such situations prompt some trainees to flee from their employers to seek higher income, leading them to work illegally or engage in theft.

In late February, a Vietnamese technical trainee was arrested for allegedly killing another Vietnamese trainee at Asahikawa Station, shocking the local community.
“I feel sorry for both the victim and the offender,” said Sato of the Hokkaido Vietnam Exchange Association.

“Vietnamese people are honest and hard working, and many of them serve as a model for Japanese people,” he said.

“They should be accepted not as trainees but as workers in wider industrial sectors for a long period of time so that they can learn skills,” he said, urging authorities to review the foreign trainee system.

Takashi Miyairi, professor of agricultural economics at Hokkai-Gakuken University, points out, “It is important for a third party other than employers to offer assistance, but trainees tend to become isolated in rural areas where there are few people who can offer such help, which means local governments need to consciously take on the task.”

The technical trainee system was established in 1993 to accept foreign nationals as interns so that they could make use of skills and knowledge learned in Japan in developing their own countries.

The maximum training period was initially set at three years but was extended to five years in 2017.

Technical interns can work for two years or more in 85 job categories including arable agriculture, livestock agriculture and plumbing.

The program is often criticized as being a way to secure cheap labor and leading to problems including many trainees running away from their employers.


Asahikawa Ekitachiuri Shokai