A screengrab from the video on The Mainichi’s story

A Vietnamese “technical intern” in Japan suffered abuse at the hands of his co-workers for two years. He received no meaningful help until he managed to contact Fukuyama Union Tampopo, a labor union in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Although technical interns are supposed to be in Japan for training, the scheme is almost always used to obtain migrant workers to do the jobs Japanese people will not do.

The Vietnamese construction worker came to Japan in October 2019, and his “internship” was to last three years, to October 2022.

The worker’s earlier attempt to draw the attention of his internship supervising organisation had no effect. According to a report in The Mainichi, (Vietnamese trainee speaks out on broken rib, injuries from assaults by Japanese colleagues, 18 January 2022),

Although the man reported the injuries in June 2021 by emailing photographic evidence to the supervising organization heading his intern program, he reportedly received a reply stating, “We will issue a warning regarding the violent behavior, but transferring you is difficult.” The man said he was told something along the lines of “it can’t be helped if you are the target of assault because your Japanese is poor.”

Technical intern trainees in Japan are typically hired under a two-tier system. There is a supervising organisation that brings the worker into Japan, but the worker is then assigned to “intern” with a specific company, which is referrred to as the employer.

The Mainichi report includes a video showing the man being assaulted in two separate instances. There is laughter in the background, probably from other persons watching.

The case was also reported in the Straits Times (Vietnamese man punched, beaten, kicked and insulted as an intern in Japan, 29 Jan 2022), which detailed his injuries:

Things got so bad that the man, who wanted to stay anonymous in press conferences this month, suffered not only bruises and cuts, but also a chipped tooth, a deep gash to his lip that needed stitches, a fracture, and four broken ribs.

The company not only turned a blind eye to his plight, but also cajoled him to lie to doctors that he had suffered a bicycle accident.

Awfully familiar

This kind of abuse and cover-up is awfully familiar to us in Singapore. In July 2016, a domestic worker from Myanmar, Piang Ngaih Don, died after suffering repeated abuse by her employer. See our commentary 1 and commentary 2.

But, like the Vietnamese scaffolding worker abused in Japan, male construction workers are also victims of assault here in Singapore. More often than not, it is not a co-worker (as in the Japanese case) but the boss or manager who is the perpetrator.

We have a three-part documentation at this site of the case of Shahidulla. See:

After Shahidulla reported the assault and his injuries to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) — he was entitled to file a work injury claim if the injuries were caused by violence at work provided he did not instigate it — MOM somehow chose not to believe him. The boss must have denied everything and, as so often is the case based on TWC2’s observation from our casework, the boss’ word must have been treated as more credible than a worker’s complaint. MOM then charged Shahidulla with making a false injury claim. Shahidulla had to fight the charges not once, but twice. Even after he was acquitted at the first trial, MOM continued to pursue a case against him.

In our case, our authorities behaved even worse than the supervising organisation behaved towards the Vietnamese worker in Japan.

Several other aspects of the Japanese case are also familiar. As reported in the Straits Times,

The man said a stifling and oppressive workplace environment made him feel afraid to speak up sooner, until a concerned friend referred his case to a local labour union, Fukuyama Union Tampopo, in October last year.

“What I was most afraid of was that I would be deported and sent back to Vietnam if I could no longer work at the company,” he said. “I was very scared and panicked. I was told that if I spoke up, the company would exact revenge and put me under even more pressure.”


The victim, however, said that while his immediate nightmare was over, he remains in limbo as he still has huge debts to pay off and wants to “find a good company” to see out the rest of his internship, which ends in October this year.

Readers may have noticed in the first quote above from The Mainichi that the Vietnamese worker asked his supervising organisation for a transfer, but it was denied. This resulted in him being trapped in an abusive situation for months more. It probably increased the abusers’ sense of impunity too. MOM policies produce the same effects.

In Singapore, employers are free to cancel work permits at any time and, except for a “temporary retention scheme” set to expire on 28 February 2022, once cancelled, the worker must be repatriated without an opportunity to stay on and look for another job here.

There is the provision that the employer can give consent to the worker to look for another job, but if the relationship between boss and employee has soured (e.g. the worker has complained of abuse) the employer is unlikely to give consent.

The excessive control that MOM has given to employers creates exactly that intimidating and stifling atmosphere that Vietnamese worker experienced. And just as he endured many months of abuse before the case came to light, workers coming to TWC2 often speak of putting up with exploitation (e.g. underpayment of salary or bullying) for months before something precipitates their speaking out.

A systemic problem

There is a tendency to see such cases as essentially isolated problems arising from bad behaviour by individuals. That’s true only to a limited extent. The initial assault may be a case of bad behaviour by an individual but responsibility for the repeated assaults can be laid at the feet of policy-makers, for it is they who trapped the migrant worker in a situation from which he or she could not escape.

There is no ducking responsbility when policy-makers disallow migrant workers from changing jobs (without need to get anybody’s consent).

Moreover, since changing jobs has a frictional cost — a worker may have to suffer a short period of unemployment whle looking for a new job — the issue of debt comes to the fore. How is a worker to quit and look for a new job if he and his family have to service loans? Many migrant workers have to raise large amounts of money to pay their recruiters (and sometimes to pay their bosses to hire them).

The solution is clear. Do not trap the worker. Do not create administative shackles that prevent him or her from walking off a bad job and looking for another. And redesign the entire recruitment system to ensure that high fees do not fall on workers.

If these are not done, all the hand-wringing in the world and all the protestations that we will punish the perpetrators, will count for little. Tomorrow, another worker will be assaulted.