A Filipina stranded in Japan is suing her Yokohama employer for her passport to be returned to her, in a case that again casts a spotlight on the less-than-ideal conditions for foreigners in low-status jobs.
The 30-year-old had thought her passport was required by her employer, Advanceconsul Certified Administrative Procedures Legal Specialists' Office, only to apply for a work visa. But her lawyer Shoichi Ibusuki said that the company continues to "hold hostage" her travel document even after she quit.
"We very often see that business operators in Japan, when hiring foreign workers, keep their passports or graduation certificates," he said.
"This is done to prevent foreign employees from making demands of the company or to protest against bad conduct by the employer. It is also to prevent workers from quitting and seeking another job."
The civil lawsuit was filed in the Yokohama District Court last month, against a company that was just in September last year warned by Kanagawa prefecture for "unjust labour practices" in another case.
The woman is also suing for damages of 1.08 million yen (S$13,700) in lost salary, given that it has been impossible for her to find work since August last year without her passport, according to court documents seen by The Sunday Times.
This case comes amid a surge in the number of foreign workers moving to Japan, which hit a record 1.66 million as of October last year amid a steep labour crunch, up 13.6 per cent from 2018.
One reason for this jump is the 189,000 new "technical interns" in Japan under a programme that has been criticised for being a hotbed of human rights abuses, including excessive overtime, unpaid wages and workplace harassment.
This harsh scrutiny led the government to tighten laws in 2017, including a ban on employers from holding on to passports. But this ban is not uniformly applied to foreign workers under other work visas.
Japan also launched a new "specified skills" visa for blue-collar workers in April last year under a five-year programme, expecting to hire 345,000 workers in 14 sectors, including nursing and hospitality.
But while it hoped to issue visas to 47,000 people in the first year, fewer than 2,000 have applied and received permission to work in Japan so far.
"It's not a failure," insisted a senior Cabinet Secretariat official on condition of anonymity. "This is a process, and we are only at the start of the programme."
All this belies a pressing need for more hands and feet, especially in blue-collar industries. There are now 157 job openings for every 100 people, while the unemployment rate stands at 2.2 per cent.
Labour lawyers and rights groups like Posse, which is helping the 30-year-old Filipina, are calling for more stringent laws to protect foreign workers from exploitation.
Mr Makoto Iwahashi, of Posse, noted that the odds have long been stacked against those in low-status jobs in Japan - both foreigners and locals - by so-called "black companies" that want to milk cheap labour who are in vulnerable positions.
"But unlike Japanese workers, foreigners have more hurdles to overcome to voice their concerns," he said. Besides the language barrier, foreign workers may receive sometimes-exploitative contracts and have no ready means of support.
The Filipina, who holds a tourism management degree, arrived in Japan in April 2017 to study at a Japanese language school. After she graduated, she was offered a clerical and translation job at Advanceconsul, beginning work on May 8 last year.
She was asked to surrender her passport, college transcript and certificate to process her visa paperwork. She was also made to sign a contract in Japanese legalese, which she said she does not understand. The company did not explain the document in English or her native Tagalog.
The form states that her employer will hold sole discretion over the management of her passport, including how long it is to be kept for.
It also states that the passport will "continue to be held by the employer in the event of resignation".
The woman quit on July 19 last year, being paid just 100,000 yen for her first month of work.
"I just don't know what to do. I'm afraid of what will happen to me if I don't have (my) documents. My passport is my personal identity.
"How can I find a new job or even go back to my country?" she said in a video on a crowdfunding page to support her case.
Mr Ibusuki, the lawyer, said that the ability of embassies or consulates to help citizens caught in such situations is limited.
"Since embassies do not have any legal powers to force companies to return the passport of their workers, the companies can decide to just ignore such requests," he said.
Mr Iwahashi added that passports are often only re-issued if lost or stolen, which requires a police report to be lodged.
"In this case, it was neither lost nor stolen. And even if victims go to the police, it is another big hurdle because they will have to then explain the whole situation - in Japanese."