TOKYO • Four Japanese companies made foreign trainees who were in the country to learn professional skills take part in decontamination work after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the government said.
The discovery is likely to revive criticism of the foreign trainee programme, which has been accused of placing workers in substandard conditions and jobs that provide few opportunities for learning.
The misconduct was uncovered in an investigation by the Justice Ministry conducted after three Vietnamese trainees were found in March to have participated in clean-up work in Fukushima.
The Vietnamese trainees were supposed to do work using construction machines, according to plans submitted by the company. "But they joined simple clean-up work such as removing soil without machines," an official told Agence France-Presse.
A powerful earthquake in March 2011 spawned a huge tsunami that led to meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant, causing the world's worst such accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
The Justice Ministry said after the discovery this March that decontamination work was not appropriate for foreign trainees.
One of the four companies has been slapped with a five-year ban on accepting new foreign trainees, and the ministry is still investigating how many trainees in the other three firms were involved.
The ministry has finished its investigation into 182 construction companies that hire foreign trainees, and will look into another 820 firms by the end of September.
Japan has been accepting foreign trainees under the government programme since 1993 and there were just over 250,000 in the country late last year. But critics say the trainees often face poor work conditions including excessive hours and harassment.
The number of foreign trainees who ran away from their employers jumped from 2,005 in 2012 to 7,089 last year, according to the ministry survey. Many cited low pay as the main reason for running away.
The investigation comes as Japan's government moves to bring in more foreign workers to tackle a labour shortage caused by the country's ageing, shrinking population.
The government last month said it wanted to create a new visa status to bring in foreign workers, with priority given to those looking for jobs in sectors such as agriculture that have been hardest hit by the labour shortage. The workers would be able to stay for up to five years, but would not be allowed to bring their family members.
The government put the number of foreign workers in Japan at 1.28 million people last year. But more than 450,000 of those are foreign spouses of Japanese citizens, ethnic Koreans long settled in Japan, or foreigners of Japanese descent. Another nearly 300,000 are students.