Indonesian Migrant Workers in Japan: Typology and Human Rights

Haning Romdiati

Like other developing countries, Indonesia faces high unemployment, underemployment, and low wages. In Japan, despite great demand for unskilled labor created by the reluctance of highly qualified young workers to take blue collar jobs, Japanese immigration law generally permits only the entry of highly-skilled labor. Nevertheless, over the past decades, a growing number of low-skilled and unskilled foreign workers have entered Japan and worked both legally and illegally.

One route has been via a worker training program the Japanese government established in 1954 to promote international cooperation and extend assistance to developing societies. This government channel was accompanied by a private channel developed by large corporations in response to the rapid postwar expansion of the Japanese economy and accompanying labor shortages. Thousands of workers from Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia went to Japan under this program in the 1950s and 1960s (Ochinai 1975, cited in Oishi 1995: 368). During Japan’s economic boom of the 1980s, the number of trainees increased rapidly, as did the number of illegal workers. By the mid 1990s, it was estimated that illegal migrant workers numbered almost 300,000 (Hurights Osaka 1996). Along with labor from other sending countries, therefore, both legal and illegal Indonesian migrants have for decades been filling Japanese labor market niches where they do not compete with domestic workers.

Most Japanese studies of this phenomenon to date have taken a macro level approach. This study reviews the situation at a macro level and goes on to identify a general typology of Indonesian migrants currently employed in Japan and to examine the individual condition and human rights of migrants in several destination cities. For this case study employing a qualitative approach, a month’s field research was conducted in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, but data and information gathered derive from informants working in places such as Otsu, Nagoya, Matsuka, Seitama, and Shiga as well. The informants include Indonesian migrant workers (part-time working students, trainees, full-time workers, and illegal workers), observers of migration worker issues, and NGO workers. 

Recent Japanese Immigration and Labor Policy

A 1990 revision to the Immigration Control and Refugee Recognition Law reinforced the Japanese government’s stand to reject “unskilled workers” while opening the door wider to foreigners with technological skills and knowledge. The revised law incorporates four basic policies (Nagayama 1996: 242): 

  • to streamline, speed up, and provide better administrative service for immigration inspection and residency examination procedures
  • to accept workers with technical or specialized skills
  • to expand worker training systems to make a greater contribution to the international community and promote international cooperation
  • to prevent foreigners from entering with the intention of working illegally

The most noteworthy change was the rearrangement of migrant worker categories with the aim of clearly distinguishing those who are permitted to work from those who are not. In order to work in Japan, a foreigner must obtain a residence status that permits employment and/or belong to the skilled category. Those classified as legal foreign workers are professionals and technical trainees. College students and pre-college students are also allowed to work part-time (up to 4 hours daily) if they obtain permission to do so.

Four categories of foreign workers are deemed illegal:

  • those who work beyond their authorized period of stay
  • those who work outside the scope of activity permitted for their status
  • those who work without a residence status that permits work or without permission
  • those who enter the country unlawfully for the purpose of engaging in income-generating activities or business 

The amended immigration law also replaced the old trainee system with the Technical Intern Training Program. This program is meant to allow Japan to share its technical skills with developing countries in the region. At the same time, its own small- and medium-size manufacturing firms, under great pressure from overseas competition, gain access to low-skilled, temporary labor (Kashiwazaki 2002). The Japan International Training Cooperation Organization (JITCO) was created to manage this system and steer foreign trainees to domestic firms. Under the new training program, a foreigner enters Japan under a one-year trainee visa and then, reclassified as a technical intern, extends his or her stay for another three years. The foreign trainee is supposed to devote the first nine months to learning “new skills,” to be followed by “on-the-job training” for which s/he receives a wage and is meant to be protected by Japanese labor laws.

However, trainees are treated differently from foreigners employed on regular basis when it comes to wages and employment benefits. They are paid only a training allowance, not a regular salary, an advantage for the hiring company. Also, because the Japanese government exercises virtually no official control over the training, it is open to abuse if companies merely use foreign employees as cheap labor under the pretence of on-the-job training. Given that unskilled foreigners are usually temporary laborers in factories and construction sites, they perform the hard and dangerous labor shunned by Japanese workers. Such jobs typically pay low salaries without insurance benefits and are more likely to result in employee accidents and illnesses due to sub-standard working conditions. 

Indonesia began to deploy trainees under the new system in 1993 after a cooperation agreement was signed in December 1992 by the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower and the Association for International Manpower Development of Medium and Small Enterprises Japan (IMM Japan) (Menteri Tenaga Kerja dan Transmigrasi RI 2001). Since then, the number of Indonesian workers deployed has been modest but increasing – from 1,438 trainees in 1995 to 5,972 in 1998 (Depnaker and LP-UI 2000). By the beginning of 2000, the total number of Indonesian trainees deployed by IMM Japan had reached 12,396, including the 4,968 who had completed the program, the 6,163 who were currently enrolled, and the 1,265 who had returned to Indonesia without completing the program for various reasons (JANNI 2001). The figure enrolled in 2001 remained roughly steady at 5,817 (JITCO 2002), comprising 9.8 percent of trainees nationally. This was only one-fifth of the Chinese figure, but higher than those of Thailand (3,184), the Philippines (3,768), and Malaysia (1,163). Japan is the main destination for Indonesian trainees. 

The foreign trainee system, however, seems just a tentative measure to fill a gap between policy and reality. Whereas immigration policy is exclusionary with respect to unskilled foreign labor, on the work floor there is widespread tolerance for large numbers of both legal and illegal workers (Nagayama 1996: 256). Many entered Japan in the 1980s and stayed on to work illegally, but statistics reveal that their numbers fluctuate from year to year: 100,000 in 1990; 300,000 in 1993; 220,000 in early 2002. Most come from Korea (25 percent), China, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Iran (Kashiwazaki 2002). 

Two types of official statistics are available relating to the number of immigrants thought to be working illegally: 

  • overstayers (calculated from the record of entries, permitted periods of stay, and departures)
  • foreign workers actually apprehended

The Justice Ministry reported, as of January 2002, about 224,067 overstayers, of which 105,945 are women. The foreign workers apprehended, of course, represent only the “tip of the iceberg.” Another group of illegal workers remains undetected because they have neither passport nor visa. Some believe that the actual number of illegal foreign workers is twice the registered estimate.

Among Indonesians, those working illegally do so by overstaying tourist and trainee visas and/or working beyond the prescribed duration of their work permits. Indonesian migrant workers in Japan therefore include the following groups:

  • workers with legal/documented employment status engaged in full-time work
  • trainees
  • part-time working students
  • illegal/undocumented foreign workers

The following sections will discuss legal workers, with emphasis on trainees, and illegal/undocumented workers. 

Legal Workers

Full and Part-time Workers. Aside from a statistically insignificant number of diplomats and officials, most legal Indonesian workers can be found working in restaurants, pubs, and cafes as cooks and managers and as administrators and staff in international services. As legal full-time workers, they receive regular salaries and bonuses and are covered by health insurance and employee’s pension insurance programs. There are also some legal Indonesian workers with relatively low skills. These are often spouses of Japanese citizens engaged in temporary or part-time employment. While their status allows them greater flexibility to work, it was observed that they were usually employed in dangerous, hard, or dirty labor, located mainly in small- or medium-sized manufacturing companies. Informants noted that legal, low-skilled Indonesian workers tend to be concentrated in industrial Osaka and the regions of Shizuoka and Nagoya. The average hourly wage in this sector is about 1,700 yen, rising to 2,600 yen in case of overtime.

Information from the Indonesian embassy also shows that the Indonesian Department of Culture and Tourism dispatched a number of entertainment workers to restaurants, karaoke bars, and pubs. These legal entertainers enter Japan on a six-month cultural visa and are exchanged with new groups at the end of their period of stay. They receive regular wages and generally enjoy decent working situations. They are covered by national health insurance and guaranteed airfare back to Indonesia. However, it must be noted that the statistical data on legal entertainers remains inadequate because of administrative and bureaucratic constraints.

Trainees/Technical Interns. Osaka, Nagano, and the Kanto region are the main destinations of Indonesian trainees. A typical trainee is in his 20s or early 30s, well-educated, and male. This is exemplified by the trainees interviewed for this study, who were young, single men with senior high school education or higher. In 2001, only 11.5 percent of Indonesian trainees were women, about the same as other sending countries (JITCO 2002).

Trainees are heavily concentrated in the manufacturing sector in occupations like welding, concrete placer operation, machining, plumbing, metal pressing, and assembly. These occupations are not necessarily those in which skill testing occurs. Trainees interviewed for this study mostly work in electrical equipment assembly, metal and plastic products manufacturing, transport machinery and tool manufacturing, and computer assembly. Most work in production division and some in divisions of quality control. A small number work in the construction sector.

Foreign trainees are strictly distinguished from “workers” in the Immigration Control Act. According to Kashiwazaki, “Trainees are not protected by labor standards and receive ‘allowances’ that are often significantly lower than the minimum wage. Although technical interns [those in the second and third year] are ‘workers’ in the legal sense, they too have found their wages cut back due to a series of deductions unilaterally imposed by employers” (Kashiwazaki 2002). In the first year, a trainee receives a monthly stipend of 80,000 yen. IMM Japan suggests that firms employing interns pay a monthly take-home allowance of at least 90,000 yen in the second year and at least 100,000 yen in the third year to cover necessary living expenses. Most informants said they received such standard allowances as regulated by IMM, but some received lesser amounts – 60,000 yen per month in the first year, 70,000 to 100,000 yen in the second and third years. According to some, the allowance is lower than an illegal worker’s average monthly wage of 200,000 yen. This wide gap in take-home pay may influence some trainees to run away from their training program to work illegally. 

Regular working hours are generally eight per day, while overtime ranged from two to six hours, in most cases about four. Compensation is paid for overtime and/or holiday work, which is only permitted to those in the second and third year. In practice, however, many companies engage their first-year trainees in overtime. Although they pay overtime compensation, the rate is lower (400-600 yen per hour) than that paid to technical interns (about 800-1,200 yen per hour). In some cases, companies avoid paying overtime compensation to first-year trainees, citing the lack of regulation on overtime compensation due them (JANNI 2001).

Most trainees participate in workmen’s accident compensation insurance, health insurance, and pension schemes. One trainee interviewed said that his company, which employed eight trainees, provides health insurance and a type of pension insurance (amounting to 13,000 yen per month for a period of three years). This pension will be given three months after the trainee returns to Indonesia.

Companies generally provide housing for their trainees with sufficient room space, electricity, heating, and gas, although in some cases a single room was being shared by several occupants. Whether the accommodation is rented or owned by the company, any type of housing provided to trainees was subject to a monthly charge deducted from their “wage.”

Human Rights. Although they are virtually “workers,” “trainee” status hinders these workers from claiming their rights and makes them endure below-standard working conditions. These include: being paid an allowance instead of a wage; compulsory overtime; physical abuse by management; and forced “savings.”

Trainees who must work long hours complain of fatigue: “I am very tired, because I have to work until midnight, while in the morning I have to go to my workplace at 7.30 am. Though I have more overtime pay, I need more rest to stay healthy.”

A trainee in his third year said: “When I did overtime work in the first year, my company just pay me about 500 yen an hour for overtime of between two and three hours a day. [My employer] told me that another 500 yen per hour would be paid at the end of the first training program, but I have received nothing up to now. I have tried to ask my employer to pay compensation for overtime, but he told me that IMM, who sent me to his company, prohibits him from paying for overtime. I did not ask IMM, because IMM is more likely to help the employer than to solve the trainee’s problem.”

In extreme cases, the companies do not pay any overtime compensation to trainees in the first year, as found by JANNI’s study (2001). This fact implies that companies take advantage of the trainees’ ignorance of the training program rules. Another possible explanation is that the trainees know the regulations of the training program, but agree to work longer hours at the regular rate to increase their take-home pay.

Another problem is physical abuse by management. One trainee working in a mechanical press factory reported that another worker, in the first month of his training period, was hit on the head for not following the proper procedure, due to language difficulties. Physical abuse was also experienced by a trainee interviewed in Tokyo.

Prior to September 1999, the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration (formerly Ministry of Manpower) obliged trainees to save a part of their allowance. A deduction of 20,000 yen per month was transferred monthly into the trainees personal accounts after first being deposited in a bank account specified by the ministry. In reality, however, the installment is still being deducted for an unspecified number of trainees, as experienced by one technical intern interviewed: “My monthly payment is reduced by 20,000 yen for savings that will be given by Depnaker [Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration] in Jakarta before I go back to my hometown. But, unfortunately, the payment will be in rupiah, which means that Depnaker will take advantage of the exchange rate.” 


Illegal Workers in Unskilled Jobs

This study roughly divided respondents in this category into three groups:

  • those who enter on a tourist or entertainment visa but violate the terms of their visa by taking up (other) employment
  • legal workers whose work permits have expired
  • “technical trainees” who desert their contracted workplace for a factory with higher pay and better working conditions

 Although no precise data on Indonesian illegal workers exists, my impression is that the number is quite large, as seen in the observed concentration of workers by ethnicity or place of origin. Javanese and Sundanese concentrate in Nagoya and those from South Sulawesi are found largely in Hamamatsu. In Tokyo, many Indonesians gather weekly in Ueno Park to wait for potential employers and brokers to approach them.

 The respondents became and remain illegal workers because of the difficulty for unskilled workers to obtain work permission. In addition, many firms – particularly small- and medium-sized firms – need workers who are willing to undertake dirty, physically hard, and often dangerous jobs at a low salary and without insurance benefits. This type of job is generally shunned by Japanese workers. Information pertaining to occupational distribution of illegal foreign workers reveals that men are working principally in physically demanding jobs in the manufacturing and construction sectors. The Indonesia Embassy also reveals that Indonesians work in the sex industry in Oarai and Tokyo. Agricultural plantations and maritime and fishing industries in places like in Ibaragi have hired illegal workers from Bali and North Sulawesi, respectively. This indicates that illegal Indonesian migrant workers have spread out to various sectors, becoming more daring in their search for work. 

 Human Rights. Compensation varies widely. Factory workers generally receive between 1,300 and 1,700 yen per hour for an eight-hour working day. In the manufacturing sector, overtime pay is 2,600 yen per hour for an average four hours per day. In the construction sector, illegal workers generally receive a day salary of 10,000 yen for eight hours of work. Wage information for illegal workers in entertainment and agriculture is hard to obtain because the work is not measured in regular working hours. Unlike legal employees, illegal workers generally receive no annual bonus. Some illegal workers interviewed did, however, but the amount was much lower than that paid to Japanese workers or legal foreign employees.

The actual wages received by illegal workers are often lower than that promised by the employer, due mainly to the recruiter/broker’s fee of 300 yen of the hourly wage. In a number of cases, workers are traded by their broker to another broker, which results in double deduction from their wages. One illegal worker in Nagoya told me: “I was sold by my broker, he said. Thus my hourly salary is subtracted from twice, 300 yen for the first broker who sold me and another 300 yen for the second one. I will leave my job soon because I am very tired of working while my brokers take advantage of my salary.” An illegal worker in a computer assemply factory also speculated that the bonus given to him by his employer ended up with his brokers, since he never received a single yen of it. 

Indonesian as well as other foreign workers who engage in 3D (dirty, dangerous, difficult) or 3K (kitsui, kitanai, kiken) jobs suffer a high level of work-related accidents. These are the outcome of performing unfamiliar jobs in dangerous working conditions, language barriers, the priority placed on speed and efficiency, and fatigue due to long working hours. Employers have no obligation to provide illegal workers with medical or other benefits, hence they are not covered by health insurance or labor insurance compensation. Although they are aware that labor insurance laws can cover them, illegal workers are conscious that their status prevents them from demanding such benefits from employers.

Problems related to the provision of industrial accident compensation are serious matters. The situation improved somewhat with a government measure to allow compensation and treatment to undocumented workers who meet accidents, on the condition that they return to their home country after treatment. However, if they want to stay in Japan after sustaining an injury, they must bear the high cost of treatment on their own. Moreover, they often do not seek treatment when they become ill because of language problems or fear that their illegal status will be exposed. The dread of being detained, imprisoned, fined, or deported is general.

Finally, there are Indonesian women who intend to work as entertainers but are forced into prostitution. They are often deceived by recruiters about the nature or condition of the work they will do in Japan. An informant who has met some of these sex workers said they were often detained and sometimes deprived of the agreed amount of salary and other benefits such as medical treatment and a day off. Kept under the control of criminal organizations, they are isolated among commercial sex workers and have no control over their labor placement. Because of fear of expulsion, lack of social contacts, and over-dependence on their employer and workplace, their ability to avail of the protection of the law is negligible and they are always at risk of multiple exploitation. 


Significant differences in earning and employment opportunities between Japan and Indonesia will remain for the foreseeable future. In line with Todaro’s expected income hypothesis of migration, one may argue that given economic conditions in their home country, workers from Indonesia are unlikely to be easily discouraged from seeking employment and better opportunities in Japan, whether legal and illegally. And although Indonesian migrant workers do not constitute a large number or proportion of foreign workers in Japan, my interviews show  that their experiences confirm the pattern reported in other migrant studies (see References).

The inflow of foreign trainees from Indonesia will continue to grow given the increasing internationalization of Japanese companies. However, several problems are apparent. First, although trainees help fill the labor needs of small- and medium-sized firms, it is not yet obvious that this has resulted in a declining demand for illegal foreign workers, as the government may have expected. The inflow of illegal workers has increased dramatically, even as the number of trainees increased. Second, since most training programs for Indonesian trainees are in the form of “on-the-job training,” exploitation may continue to occur, especially in the areas of compensation and working conditions. Third, the training program tends not to increase the skill of the trainees, simply because the “on-the-job training” is actually basic labor.

Illegal workers are vulnerable in many more ways, subject to abuse by employers and brokers and unable to access social services. The Japanese government should take action to protect the rights of undocumented migrants to work legally as stipulated in international conventions and human rights treaties. It should also acknowledge the migrants’ role in Japanese society, especially their contribution to the economy as a source of cheap and docile labor. This contribution remains unrecognized, contributing to a situation in which their rights can be continuously suppressed.

Indonesia, as a sending country, should also increase its effort to protect its workers in Japan. Providing sufficient information about Japanese laws and protecting workers from manipulation by third parties (whether government itself or privately owned deployment firms) are efforts that demand serious consideration by the Indonesian government. As a first step, networks between the Indonesian government and the receiving agencies must be greatly strengthened. While it is obvious that more serious international efforts are needed to curb the unlawful flow of labor, better protection for workers in Japan legally is likely to reduce the number of Indonesians working illegally

Haning Romdiati
Haning Romdiati is a researcher at the Research Centre for Population, Indonesian Institute of Sciences. The research for this paper was funded by a grant from the JSPS Cooperation Programmes with Southeast Asian Countries under the General Exchange System and first presented at CSEAS, Kyoto University. 

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 4 (October 2003). Regional Economic Integration 


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