Forbidden pregnancies lead Vietnamese workers to abandon dead newborns

Two Vietnamese women have been arrested in Japan for abandoning the bodies of their newborn babies. In both cases, the women said they feared losing their jobs as technical trainees if their employers found out about the pregnancies.

The women are among a growing number of about 400,000 technical trainees who underpin Japanese industry. Their November arrests in the western prefectures of Hiroshima and Kumamoto highlight discrimination and unfair work practices demanded by Japanese employers and Vietnamese intermediaries.

Arrested mothers feared being sent home

A 26-year-old woman was arrested and indicted in the Hiroshima case. Prosecutors say she gave birth to a baby at her company dormitory, but the newborn died soon afterward. They say she buried the body in the dormitory yard. The corpse was discovered with no external wounds and the umbilical cord and placenta still attached.

A sketch of an NHK reporter’s meeting with the trainee at the police detention center
The Vietnamese woman said she could not consult anyone about her pregnancy as she wanted to continue working in Japan.

In January, an NHK reporter met the woman at a police detention center where she is being held. She said she feared she would be sent back to Vietnam if she was found to have given birth. She felt she could not consult anyone.

The Kumamoto case involves a 21-year-old who faces the same charges. Prosecutors say she feared that she would be forcibly returned to Vietnam if her pregnancy was discovered. She too had no one to turn to.

Penalized for being pregnant

The Japanese government bans businesses from unfavorably treating foreign technical trainees on account of pregnancy and childbirth. It also guarantees these workers the same rights to maternity and childcare leave as their Japanese counterparts.

But in practice, the situation is quite different. A consultant who helps Vietnamese people find internships in Japan tells NHK that female trainees are actively discouraged from becoming pregnant. He says foreigners are recruited for sectors that face labor shortages, including agriculture and fishing, and are asked to work continuously during traineeships that last between one to three years.

Pregnancy and childbirth means time away from work, something the consultant claims is a dealbreaker for Japanese employers. And when a trainee does become pregnant, that in turn undermines confidence in Vietnamese recruitment organizations. As a result, recruitment firms have banned participants from becoming pregnant – with some going even further by demanding trainees pay a $5,000 penalty if their programs are suspended for any reason, including pregnancy.

That penalty is imposed on top of commissions and other agency fees that many trainees pay for their move to Japan. The consultant says the total can come to $10,000 dollars, a vast sum for most.

Women forced into abortion

One technical trainee who spoke to NHK on condition of anonymity says she was forced to return to Vietnam because of her pregnancy. She arrived in Japan about two years ago as a technical trainee with the aim of supporting her family back home. Just over one year in, she was in a relationship with a fellow intern and got pregnant. She said she was happy but also very worried because she knew of a pregnant colleague who had been sacked and sent home.

Her fears were realized when her employer told her that she was no longer allowed to work at the factory, claiming she had breached a rule by becoming pregnant. She said her employer pressured her to have an abortion, something that she and her boyfriend resisted. Worried she might be sent back home with no way to repay her debts, she sought help from a support group.

Deciding she needed to continue her work for the sake of her family and her coming child, the woman temporarily returned to Vietnam last year to give birth to a healthy baby boy. The support group she turned to for advice negotiated with her employer while she was in Vietnam, and she was allowed to return to her job. But she had to leave her baby behind.

AA technical trainee
The technical trainee says her employer pressured her to have an abortion.

Japan does not allow foreign workers to bring their babies if they want to take part in technical trainee programs. The woman says she sees her son many times a day through video calls but that she misses him and wishes she could hold him and watch him grow.

She says she does not understand why she and other foreign technical trainees are not allowed to give birth and raise their children while continuing to work, even though their Japanese colleagues can.

Isolated women urged to reach out

Many foreign trainees who discover they are pregnant have turned to Sister Maria Le Thi Lang at a Catholic church in Kawaguchi City, Saitama Prefecture, for advice. She consulted in 50 cases last year, including five in December. She says the incidents in Hiroshima and Kumamoto are the result of the overwhelming sense of isolation that these women are feeling.

Sister Maria Le Thi Lang
Sister Maria encourages foreign technical trainees to seek advice if they become pregnant.

Sister Maria is trying to improve the situation. She is working with labor unions that support foreign workers to persuade employers to allow trainees to continue their internships after they become pregnant and give birth. She also has contact with childcare support groups that help trainees who need to leave their babies in their home countries to continue working in Japan.

She says many foreign workers feel they have to hide their pregnancies because of family debt pressures, and some see abortion as their only option. But Sister Maria is urging them to seek advice – and remember their right to have children.

Watch Video 09:09

Pregnancy-related advice for Vietnamese trainees and students is available through the following Facebook groups.