For years, Japan has offered vocational training to people from developing countries. The Technical Intern Training Program equips foreigners with skills they can take home to help transform their own economies. But thousands of the trainees have been quitting their jobs. NHK has learned that some of them see a brighter future as asylum-seekers.
More than 180,000 people are now receiving vocational training in Japan. Many are working in factories, construction sites, farms and in the fishing industry. But the program has been criticized for being a source of cheap labor for businesses struggling to fill positions.
Labor Ministry officials say many trainees complain they are paid poorly, or not at all. Trainees have launched a string of lawsuits against employers demanding unpaid wages.
Thousands of foreigners are also leaving their jobs. The president of a construction company accepted 3 trainees from Myanmar. But one suddenly went missing.
"I was shocked because my other employees and family members had good relations with them," the president said.
The situation is becoming more common. Last year, a record 4,800 trainees left their workplaces. Documents obtained by NHK show that about 10 percent have since applied for refugee status.
They include more than 200 people from Nepal and Myanmar. That almost matches the number of trainees who left their work places.
NHK interviewed a former factory trainee from Myanmar. He now has two part-time jobs and earns about 2,500 dollars a month. That's about three times what he earned as a trainee.
The government-backed program allows trainees to work for up to 3 years. But the refugee program allows applicants to get a job six months after applying for refugee status and to choose their workplace.
Even if the application is rejected, the claimant can appeal and continue to work while it is being heard.
"I left my workplace as the pay was low and all the money was gone when I paid rent," the former factory trainee said. "I want to make as much money as I can. And I want to help my family and return home to run my own business when I am 30."
Last year, about 5,000 people applied for refugee status in Japan. That's four times more than the figure from 5 years ago. But only 11 people were given the status, a much lower ratio than European countries.
The Japanese Justice Ministry has reviewed the refugee program. The ministry plans to reject those who do not have valid reasons for applying, or who apply repeatedly, without reviewing their cases.
"I think the government should accept genuine refugees more openly," said Kiyoto Tanno, a professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University. "But the authorities should be careful about applications from foreign trainees who have fled from workplaces. They should develop a system to prevent trainees from applying for refugee status."
The training internship program has long been criticized by the United States and other countries as a source of cheap wages and forced overtime.
The Japanese government plans to establish a new organization that supervises the companies and groups that accept trainees.