TOKYO • Tang Xili came to Japan from China in 2013 hoping to earn enough in three years to build a new home for her daughter.
Instead, the 35-year-old ended up in a labour union shelter, after leaving an employer she says owes her unpaid wages of about 3.5 million yen (S$43,800).
She said she worked long hours, six days a week, was paid less than the minimum wage rate for overtime, and could not change her employer under her visa's terms.
"I really regret coming to Japan," she said.
Ms Tang is among more than 180,000 foreign workers in Japan who gained employment permits as part of a government programme to train people from developing nations with skills they could use back home. Instead, the plan became a way for some Japanese companies to circumvent the nation's strict foreign labour rules and gain a supply of cheap workers for 72 occupations in areas such as agriculture, fishing, construction, food processing and textiles.
Ms Tang's former employer, Takara Seni, is a textile maker.
"We can't make it with Japanese alone," managing director Yoshihiro Masago said. "We can't fill openings when we advertise them."
Tokyo plans to extend the programme to five years from three and create a new watchdog to prevent exploitation.
Dokkyo University law professor Kazuteru Tagaya, who chaired a panel of experts to overhaul the so-called Technical Intern Training Programme, is concerned that, without proper oversight, an expanded programme would lead to continued abuses.
Some workers in the programme "experience conditions of forced labour", the US Department of State said in its July 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report, which covers countries around the world. The report said some interns pay up to US$10,000 (S$14,000) for jobs and are employed under contracts that mandate forfeiture of the equivalent of thousands of dollars if they try to leave. There were reports of excessive fees, deposits and "punishment" contracts, it said.
Japan's Labour and Justice ministries and the panel cite cases of companies paying below the minimum wage, demanding workers pay deposits and confiscating passports and mobile phones.
"The reality is, a lot of those who come for training work under poor labour conditions rather than as real trainees," said Minister of Regional Revitalisation Shigeru Ishiba.
Ms Tang said she paid a recruiting agency in China more than 30,000 yuan (S$6,500) to find a place for her after it promised she would come home with savings of 5 million yen.
She said she was earning about 140,000 yen a month after her employer subtracted rent, utilities, benefits and Internet service. That is twice what she got in China, but also double the work hours.