Japanese police have launched an investigation into human trafficking after their arrest of 11 Chinese construction workers without proper documentation seems to have led 46 others to flee into hiding.
The workers were arrested near a train station in Kikonai town on the southwestern coast of Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, on 26 November. Police said two were without passports, while nine others had overstayed their visas.
The men, aged 27 to 62, were among some 60 Chinese labourers who arrived in Japan in September to work on a giant solar power plant on the island, according to reports in the Japanese press.
Authorities began investigating after a Chinese man who had fallen ill was taken to a local clinic by four other workers, according to a statement posted Tuesday by the Chinese consulate in Sapporo. The man later died.
The workers were reportedly hired by a staffing agency, but it was unclear if this was Chinese or Japanese. Police are investigating the employer to determine if it was aware that the workers did not have proper travel documents.
Japan’s construction industry is presently facing a tight labour market caused by the country’s ageing workforce and low birth rate. To meet the challenge, the industry is investing in automated building systems, and the government is relaxing its tight restrictions on economic migrants.
Japan’s treatment of foreign workers has long been controversial. Japan Today notes that the country has a long-established internship program designed to offer workers from poorer Asian countries on-the-job training. However, these programmes have been criticised by rights groups as forced labour. Last year, some 7,000 of the 270,000 technical interns fled, citing underpay and mistreatment, according to government statistics.
Image: Construction workers in Japan (Kojach/CC BY 2.0)