(Read this story in a PDF: here)
By Alexandra Harney and Antoni Slodkowski
HAKUSAN, Japan/HAIMEN, China, June 12 Wednesday,
Oct. 31, 2012 was a regular work day at Kameda, a family-owned
apparel factory housed in rusting corrugated metal buildings in
the western Japanese city of Hakusan. For three Chinese women,
it was a day of escape.
At about 6:30 that morning, Ichiro Takahara, a Japanese
union organizer, rolled up outside the dormitory where the women
lived. Lu Xindi, Qian Juan and Jiang Cheng were waiting - they
had been secretly plotting this move for months. Takahara drove
them to a convenience store and then to the local labor
The story behind their flight began three years earlier and
more than 900 miles (1,440 km) away in eastern China's Jiangsu
province. There, they signed up with a labor export company to
work in Japan's "foreign technical intern" program, which Tokyo
insists is designed to help workers from developing countries
learn advanced technical skills.
In a lawsuit filed in a Japanese court, Lu, Qian and Jiang
claim that rather than training them, Kameda forced them to work
excessive hours at below minimum wage. In 2011, their busiest
year, the women were working 16 hours a day, six days a week,
with 15 minutes for lunch, according to the lawsuit and work
records. For that, they were paid around $4 per hour, according
to records reviewed by Reuters.
Other former interns have made similar allegations in dozens
of lawsuits filed in Japan. Their case stands out because during
the time Lu, Qian and Jiang were working there, Kameda was
putting pleats in Burberry clothes.
Japan is a key market for the British luxury brand,
generating 12.8 percent of Burberry's pre-tax profit, or around
55 million pounds ($92.5 million), in the year to March 31,
The profits came from licensing arrangements, some of which
date back decades. Today, Burberry maintains licensing
arrangements with four Japanese companies. The largest of these
is with apparel manufacturer and retailer Sanyo Shokai, a
relationship that began in 1970. Though most of what Burberry
produces in Japan is sold there, factories in Japan also supply
two stores in Hong Kong that sell the Burberry Blue and Burberry
Black lines. Kameda was putting pleats in shirts and skirts sold
by Sanyo Shokai under the Burberry Black line.
Burberry declined to allow Reuters to speak to any
executives directly about the Kameda case. Through a public
relations agency, it issued a statement saying Burberry had
asked Sanyo Shokai to terminate its relationship with Kameda in
late 2012 because Kameda was not complying with Burberry's
Among Kameda's other clients at this time were some of
Japan's largest trading houses: Itochu and Mitsui
Bussan Inter-Fashion (MIF), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mitsui
& Co. Mitsui said it was unaware of the lawsuit until
Reuters contacted the company for comment; MIF said it would
monitor the lawsuit and then decide about the company's
relationship with Kameda. Itochu said it was not aware that
Kameda employed foreign technical interns.
Kameda's website lists department store Isetan as a
client. A spokesman for the retailer, now known as Mitsukoshi
Isetan, said that it has only been buying women's apparel from
Kameda since January.
The most recent government data show there are about 155,000
technical interns in Japan. Nearly 70 percent are from China,
where some labor recruiters require payment of bonds worth
thousands of dollars to work in Japan. Interns toil in apparel
and food factories, on farms and in metal-working shops. In
these workplaces, labor abuse is endemic: A 2012 investigation
by Japanese labor inspectors found 79 percent of companies that
employed interns were violating labor laws. The Ministry of
Health, Labour and Welfare said it would use strict measures,
including prosecution, toward groups that repeatedly violated
the laws or failed to follow its guidance in their treatment of
Critics say foreign interns have become an exploited source
of cheap labor in a country where, despite having the world's
most rapidly ageing population, discussion of increased
immigration is taboo. The U.S. State Department, in its 2013
Trafficking in Persons report, criticized the program's use of
"extortionate contracts", restrictions on interns' movements,
and the imposition of heavy fees if workers leave.
Japan faces a worsening labor shortage, not only in
family-run farms and factories such as Kameda but in
construction and service industries. It is a major reason that
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration is planning a further
expansion of the trainee program.
TRAINEES, NOT WORKERS
Lu, Qian and Jiang arrived in Osaka by boat on Nov. 19,
2009. Lu was 30, Qian 28, and Jiang just 19.
The women had signed up to work in Japan with a labor export
company in the city of Haimen, not far from Shanghai, called
Haimen Corporation for Foreign Economic & Technical Cooperation.
A woman at the company's office who gave her name as Chen
confirmed that the company sent workers to Japan to work in
apparel factories. But she declined to discuss the Kameda case,
or even confirm that the company had sent Lu, Qian and Jiang to
The Haimen firm then signed an agreement with Shanghai SFECO
International Business Service, a subsidiary of state-owned
company China SFECO Group, according to Guan Xiaojun, head of
the Japan trainee department. Shanghai SFECO signed a contract
with the Ishikawa Apparel Association and sent Lu, Qian and
Jiang to Japan.
Guan said Lu, Qian and Jiang probably paid about RMB30,000,
or more than $4,800, in "service fees", as well as a separate
fee of RMB4,550 that would be returned to the women after three
years as long as they did not violate Japanese law. Asked about
the accusations in the lawsuit, Guan said her company had only
dispatched the workers. "Labor disputes have nothing to do with
us," she said.
The rules of the program specified that Lu, Qian and Jiang's
first year in Japan was to be devoted to training. Japanese law
bars employing foreigners as unskilled laborers. But quietly,
the country has been bringing in foreigners since at least the
1980s, originally to train staff of companies with operations
overseas. The practice was formalized as the technical intern
program in 1993.
The women received 18 days of Japanese language training in
Osaka. Then, the Ishikawa Apparel Association put them on a bus
for the drive to Kameda, said their lawyer, Shingo Moro.
Kameda specializes in making pleats. It had relied on
foreign interns for about a decade because it couldn't find
enough workers in Japan, Yoshihiko Kameda, its president, told
The conditions the lawsuit describes are a world apart from
the clean, efficient image Japan projects to the world, and a
far cry from the quintessentially British reputation on which
Not long after their arrival, the apparel association took
the women's passports and passed them to Kameda in violation of
Japanese law protecting interns' freedom of movement, according
to the lawsuit. An Ishikawa Apparel Association spokeswoman, who
declined to give her name, said the group does not conduct
inappropriate supervision and training, but declined further
comment citing the lawsuit.
At the factory, Lu, Qian and Jiang's overtime stretched to
more than 100 hours a month, the lawsuit says. A timesheet
prepared with data supplied by Kameda to the Japanese labor
standards bureau shows Lu logged an average of 208 hours a month
doing overtime and "homework" during her second year in Japan.
That is equivalent to almost 16 hours a day, six days a week.
Japanese labor policy considers 80 hours of overtime a month the
"death by overwork" threshold.
For this, Lu earned about 400 yen, about $4, an hour at
Kameda, the timesheet shows. The local minimum wage at the time
was 691 yen an hour, and Japanese law requires a premium of as
much as 50 percent of the base wage for overtime.
In addition, during lunch breaks and after work, the women
were asked to do "homework". For this, they were paid by the
piece, rather than by the hour.
At night, Lu, Qian and Jiang slept in an old factory
building, their lawyer says. To catch rats, Kameda brought in a
cat, which brought fleas. Lu and Qian suffered so many flea
bites they developed skin conditions, the lawsuit says. Evidence
compiled for the lawsuit shows the women's legs covered in
REHEARSING THE INSPECTION
Like Lu, Qian and Jiang, most interns come through a program
supported by the Japan International Training Cooperation
Organization (JITCO), a foundation funded by the Japanese
government and member groups. JITCO is also tasked with ensuring
its members' internship programs are properly run.
Kameda's factory is in Hakusan, an industrial town of about
100,000 people on Japan's west coast, a centre for Japan's once
booming apparel industry. That industry has largely been reduced
to family-run factories, such as Kameda's, which mostly do small
orders with quick turnarounds at low margins. Around the Kameda
factory are several others that employ foreign trainees from
China and Southeast Asia.
In November 2011, Kameda told the interns the plant was
going to be inspected by JITCO, according to testimony the women
gave Takahara's activist group. The inspection came after four
Chinese interns at a nearby apparel factory - also a member of
the Ishikawa Apparel Association - fled to Takahara's shelter
and filed a complaint about labor issues.
Kameda, who lives in a large house with a manicured Japanese
garden opposite the factory where he used to house the women,
tried to hide their working conditions from JITCO inspectors.
Kameda threatened to send them back to China if they didn't do
as they were told, according to their testimony.
The day before the inspector arrived, Kameda gave Lu, Qian
and Jiang fake payslips, according to their testimony. Together
with an interpreter and a representative from the apparel
association, Kameda told them how to respond to questions from
the inspector. They rehearsed their answers twice. The next day,
when the inspector asked them if they still had their passports,
the women knew to say that they did.
JITCO declined to comment on the Kameda case.
Asked about alleged abuses in the program, JITCO said in a
statement that it will continue to provide legal protection for
interns. JITCO will also help supervising organisations adhere
to immigration and labor laws and regulations "by providing all
kinds of advice, and through public relations such as seminars
and teaching materials".
In the interview with Reuters, Kameda said the interns
approached him about how they should respond to the JITCO
inspection several times. He denied coaching or threatening to
send them home if they did not answer as instructed. But he
acknowledged telling Lu, Qian and Jiang that they might be sent
home, as workers at the nearby factory had been.
He also recalled telling the workers their overtime - which
he said exceeded 100 hours a month at that time - might be a
problem for the JITCO inspector. In fact, JITCO even warned him
the interns were working too much overtime, Kameda said. Asked
about this inspection, JITCO said it would not comment on
Kameda acknowledged keeping some of his workers' passports,
but said it was at their request. He said the women sometimes
worked 100 hours of overtime a month and may have put in as many
as 173 hours.
Kameda also said he initially paid them less than the legal
wage. But he insisted the underpayment was the result of an
administrative error. The additional hours and homework, he
said, were provided at the women's behest. Kameda warned the
workers that the hours they were working were longer than
Japanese labor law allowed, but the workers expressed a "strong
desire" to continue working long hours, he told Reuters.
No one from the Ishikawa Apparel Association visited Kameda
prior to a JITCO inspection, the apparel group's spokeswoman
said. She said she was not aware of any use of falsified
payslips, or of any coaching of Kameda interns. She confirmed
that the interns had complained to the association about their
housing. The association, she said, asked Kameda to respond to
the interns' concerns.
Lu, Qian and Jiang, who have since returned to China,
declined requests for an interview. Interns who have sued their
former Japanese employers can face difficulties upon returning
home, including intimidation, lawsuits and penalties from the
Chinese companies who sent them to Japan - and also pressure
from family members ashamed of their problems overseas.
The women complained several times to Kameda about their
living conditions, labor organizer Takahara says, but nothing
changed until they complained to the Ishikawa Apparel
Association. After the group passed on this complaint, Kameda
moved the women into temporary housing while he cleaned the
converted factory where they slept. It was two months before
they could move back into the factory, according to Takahara.
Around August 2012, the workers reached out to Takahara's
group. Could he help the workers negotiate a settlement like the
one the Chinese interns received at the nearby apparel factory?
Through a colleague who spoke Chinese, Takahara told them they
would not be able to continue to work after they filed their
complaint. He advised the interns to keep working and collect
evidence. Over the next few months, Takahara and his colleagues
worked out a plan with the Kameda interns.
Takahara, now 62, had been involved in brokering settlements
for foreign workers for more than a decade in western Japan.
Over the years, Takahara, who also works as a gardener, had
worked out a script that he followed several times a year with
foreign interns with grievances.
Because workers who complain have been forcibly deported,
Takahara and other union representatives encourage interns to
fulfill their contracts. They are meticulous in their
documentation: keeping time cards, sending faxes from
convenience stores so there is a dated record of the
communication, alerting local labor inspectors before bringing
in interns to report alleged violations to make sure staff are
The morning of their escape, Takahara drove the women from
Kameda to a convenience store. There, they sent a fax to the
factory requesting paid holiday until Nov. 19, the day their
contract expired. Takahara then took them to the local labor
standards office to testify about their experience at the
factory. The inspectors were expecting them.
In late 2012, Kameda agreed to pay 1.3 million yen each to
Lu, Qian and Jiang. In addition, the labor standards bureau
ordered Kameda to pay 260,000 yen collectively to the three
women for the "homework" they had been required to do on a piece
rate. In the end, the women each received about 1.4 million yen,
or nearly $14,000 at current exchange rates, Takahara says.
Kameda told Reuters he paid the full amount the labor
standards bureau demanded and did everything asked of him. He
blames Takahara's group for stirring up resentment among the
workers. "They were completely happy until they left and sued
us," Kameda said.
Moro, the women's lawyer, says Kameda only paid what he owed
the women for the second and third year of their time at his
factory, and the homework settlement was not based on an
accurate calculation of the hours the women worked.
On October 9, 2013, Moro filed suit on behalf of the three
Chinese interns in a court in Kanazawa, naming Kameda and the
Ishikawa Apparel Association as defendants. The suit asks for
unpaid wages, expenses and damages for pain and suffering
amounting to about 11.2 million yen, or about $109,000.
EXPANDING THE PROGRAM
It wasn't until late 2012, after Lu, Qian and Jiang had left
the factory and their complaints reported in the Mainichi
newspaper, that a Burberry executive visited Kameda. Burberry
asked Sanyo Shokai to terminate the relationship with Kameda
"due to non-compliance and a lack of cooperation in the
implementation of Burberry's ethical standards," Burberry said
in its statement.
Burberry's code of conduct, which covers licensees such as
Sanyo Shokai, prohibits homework and bans the use of bonded
labor and the payment of "deposits" to employers. It requires
factories to pay at least the national legal minimum wage and
provide safe, clean accommodation for workers. Workers should
not be required to work more than 48 hours a week or 11 hours a
day, the code says. Overtime should be both voluntary and no
more than 12 hours a week; it should not be demanded on a
regular basis. Burberry also requires all factories to make sure
workers keep their "passports, ID cards, bank cards and similar
documents to facilitate their unhindered freedom of movement".
The luxury brand only began auditing Japanese suppliers for
ethical compliance in 2009, the year Lu, Qian and Jiang arrived.
Burberry's two auditors started, according to a person familiar
with the company's activities, with the largest factories and
those that produced finished goods.
Burberry's current licensing arrangement with Sanyo Shokai
and Mitsui will expire in June 2015. Under the terms of a new
license agreement, the Burberry Blue and Black labels will
continue as Blue Label and Black Label, dropping the Burberry
name. Burberry will continue to audit the supply chain.
Today, about 37 of the approximately 270 factories that
supply Burberry branded items to licensees in Japan use foreign
interns supported by JITCO. These factories employ around 307
JITCO interns. Burberry now offers training and access to a
hotline in Chinese.
"Burberry takes the welfare of workers in all areas of its
supply chain extremely seriously," the company said in a
statement to Reuters. "In the case of foreign contract workers
in particular, we are very focused on ensuring that they operate
in conditions that adhere to the Burberry Ethical Trading Code
Japan strengthened protection for interns in 2010, putting
them under Japanese labor laws for all three years of their
internship. But the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which
represents more than 30,000 attorneys, argues the intern program
should be scrapped on human rights grounds.
Kameda says his factory no longer employs foreign interns.
He thinks Japan should drop the pretense of internships and
allow foreigners to work as laborers. "Regardless of the women's
requests, I regret that I didn't do things properly," he wrote
in an emailed response to questions from Reuters. He intends to
counsel partner factories that employ interns "so what Kameda is
experiencing won't happen again."
(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki, James Topham and Aaron
Sheldrick in Tokyo, and the Shanghai newsroom; Editing by Bill