TOKYO. — The Japanese government should forbid employers from retaining the passports of their foreign workers, a lawyer said on Thursday after a Filipino woman sued her former employer for refusing to return her personal documents.
The case comes at a time when the government is seeking to attract laborers from outside Japan in hopes of finding a solution to the country’s severe labor shortage. A visa scheme introduced last year is projected to draw in 345,000 workers over five years.
“Unfortunately, it’s common practice for companies to take the passports of the foreign workers they employ,” Shoichi Ibusuki, the plaintiff’s lawyer, told reporters.
“But to take someone’s passport and then force them to work is forced labor, and should not be allowed under Japanese law,” he said.
The 30-year-old woman, who has kept her name private, filed a lawsuit last week demanding the return of her passport, graduation certificate and other documents that she turned over when she started working at the company, a law office, in May 2019.
The woman asked for her passport back when she resigned in July 2019 but the company refused to return it, claiming it feared she would “run away,” said Makoto Iwahashi, a representative from a non-governmental organization that is assisting the woman with legal procedures.
Iwahashi said he believed the issue was not uncommon, but the breadth of the problem was hard to grasp because many cases went underreported because of the language barrier and fears of deportation threats.
“I’m standing up also for others to not be afraid and fight for what is right, so I’m standing not only for myself but for other foreign workers who are in the same situation,” the woman said in a short video clip shown to reporters at the news conference.
AdvanceConsul Certified Administrative Procedures Legal Specialists’ Office, her former employer, declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
It is illegal in Japan for companies to confiscate the passports of technical trainees under a special intern program, but there is no law forbidding firms from taking the passports of foreign laborers in Japan under other visa schemes.
There is a government guideline advising against the confiscation of passports but it is not legally binding.
“I believe this guideline should become law, and also include a penalty clause,” Ibusuki said.
“We’re hoping that we can use this lawsuit as an opportunity to convince the government to create a law that would ban the confiscation of passports.”