Not all is gloom and doom with Japan learn and earn program

Quizzed at the Question Hour at yesterday’s Assembly session on the controversial learn and earn program in Japan, Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering said majority of youth who are in Japan through the program are doing well.

“If we go by what is written in social media, all 800 or so youth in Japan are facing problems. But our own assessment has shown that just about 60 youth who have returned and 30 or more who are still in Japan are facing problems,” said Lyonchhen.

He said even his own relatives are working in Japan as well as a daughter of one of the cabinet ministers.

The Prime Minister was responding to a question raised by Dewathang-Gomdar Member of Parliament, Ugyen Dorji, who asked what the government was doing to ensure that the problem faced by Bhutanese youth in Japan is resolved and affected youth rescued and remunerated properly.

Lyonchhen said that he has no comments when it comes to those indicted by the investigating agency, Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) but the government understands that it is difficult to earn enough to survive in Japan as well as service the loan back home. “We have to see what to do with the program henceforth.”

The Prime Minister said the cabinet has decided that those already in Japan will continue learning and earning. “They are facing problems mainly because they are studying right now. After they finish learning Japanese language, they will get a job as per their performance. And once they get jobs, it will be much better.”

To ease the burden on the youth, the cabinet discussed to keep loan repayment on hold until they finished their studies and get employed. The cabinet also deliberated on loan repayment of youth who have already returned home and ways to employ them, for instance through the Direct Employment Program.

The cabinet decided that the labor minister accompanied by the finance minister and other members will lead a team to Japan to study about the learn and earn program.“The problem will be studied properly and we pledge that it will be resolved soon,” said Lyonchhen.

Lyonchhen also said that since Japan is a first world, the working environment and culture are totally different than in Bhutan and youth should have been familiarized with realities in Japan before sending them.

“It is very evident that people will get cultural shock. We have all the sympathy to the youth who had to undergo such turmoil but for those still in Japan, our request is to continue learning. The government promises to render all our support to all the youths,” said Lyonchhen.

The controversy

The death of 24-year-old Bhutanese in Fukuoka, Japan on December 4 last year, who was in Japan since October last year through the learn and earn program, sparked heated discussions, with allegations against the Ministry of Labor and Human resources and Bhutan Employment Overseas (BEO).

Around 735 Bhutanese youth were sent to Japan starting 2017 till date through the learn and earn program arranged BEO. Around 90 students returned home last year unable to cope with working conditions.

ACC investigations found that the labor ministry had illegally approved the BEO license. BEO had also charged unauthorized translation fees amounting to Nu 3.832mn from 511 students. The ACC has asked for the cancellation of BEO’s trade license.

In their petition to the Prime Minister, the parents of the youth who have returned have alleged that due to adverse situation, high financial liability, and difficult working conditions, Bhutanese students in Japan may drift into severe depression. “Overwork, sleep deprivation, and the stress of perfecting a foreign language have started to take a serious toll on their physical and mental health. We believe the agency did not prepare them well for the rigors of life in Japan, where (statistically) death caused by overwork and depression is overwhelming,” states the letter.

Further they accused BEO of luring the students by convincing them that loans can be repaid within two years and students would be allowed to work two jobs, save enough for tuition fee and other living costs, and also get full employment on completion of the language course. “However, we have come to know that the agency did not live up to its commitment, and stand accused today of serious breach of contract.”

The petition letter states that the students have been working part time illegally and in harsh conditions.  “Japan is a very expensive country, and even by working two jobs, many will struggle financially. Forget saving, it is difficult just to meet the daily living expenses.”

The petition letter also accused BEO of excessively charging the students. Besides the Nu 57,000 placement/agent fees, BEO was accused of charging an additional Nu 17,000 per student as visa, translation and documentation fees.

Further, it states that ticketing contract for all the students were given to one agent, without floating the tender, which deprived them of the best price and other associated concessions. Also, all the flights were direct flights, which cost more.

The letter also alleges that BEO misinformed the government and financial institutions regarding the success of the program. “While the first two batches of students, totaling 129, were unable to repay their loans on time, we were informed that the agency paid the loan on their behalf, just to convince the banks, hence, getting the loan for their third batch of 380, the largest by far, approved.”

Students who want to withdraw were slapped Nu 50,000 as withdrawal fees by BEO, just to discourage them from leaving the program, thereby, ensuring their profit margin is not affected.

Speaking to Business Bhutan, Labor Minister Ugyen Dorji said the program was first of its kind and there were loopholes and that the ministry is reviewing the program. “We are taking time but definitely looking into the matter. There is a sense of urgency. We are also looking into where the ministry has gone wrong? We are coming up with the solutions though have not reached a definite solution as yet,” said Lyonpo.

BEO refutes allegations

BEO has refuted all allegations and charges against them.

The co-owner of BEO, Tenzin Rigden, said that following discussions with labor ministry, the contract for the students was revised and specific changes on the part time jobs were made. “The clause on two part time jobs was there in the first agreement but in the second one the clause was removed because two part time jobs were not allowed in Japan,” said Tenzin Rigden.  “My point is if the previous agreement violated Japan’s law then we wouldn’t possibly have it and that is why we had to change it.”

When the second agreement was signed, the students were told that BEO would respect both the agreements. “Even today, we will respect both the agreements and there is no issue about it,” said Tenzin Rigden.

Responding on air tickets being charged high, he said that the ticketing business was outsourced to Bhutan Tourism Corporation Limited (BTCL) because BTCL was doing air ticketing for pervious business of the partner of the BEO. “They gave us good discount and ticket fare was cheap,” he said.

He said after several months some students from the first batch complained about the air tickets to the labor ministry and an audit was conducted.  “Because of this and some other complaints, the ministry decided to audit BEO. Officials from the ministry came to our office and they audited and they did not come to a conclusion that we had profited. The audit came out clean,” he said.

The BEO co-owner also said the cancellation fees were determined and the amount was fixed by the schools in Japan. The cancellation fees were levied so that the students do not cancel the seats. Different schools in Japan have different cancellation charges.

What youth who are in Japan and their parents say

Business Bhutan talked to several Bhutanese youth who are currently in Japan and their parents.

Sonam Tshering Dhendup, father of Jigme Lhendup who is currently in Japan said that his ex wife is blaming him for sending their son to Japan after hearing all the issues on social media and mainstream media about the program. “I am in touch with my son but he has not shared anything with me and he is reluctant to return too. I know he must be suffering but he is not sharing with me and I am really worried about it,” he said.

He said the labor ministry and BEO have cheated the parents as well as the children. “The former government is to be blamed and should be held accountable. There was no outcome from the former government but we are hopeful that there will be an outcome from this new government,” said Sonam Tshering Dhendup.

A father requesting anonymity said though his son, who is in Osaka, Japan, has not made any complaints but his son has not been able to pay tuition fees and loan back home. “They have to work at odd hours and the agency (BEO) had said that they can only do one job and later on the agency in Japan will look for another job which will help them pay back their loans.”

This was promised here in Bhutan but it did not materialize, he said. “As of now, my son is not able to pay his loan and I am paying off his loan every month. I wonder how other students and their parents who are not working are coping.”

An uncle of a youth who was in Tokyo, Japan, said that his nephew could not cope with the working environment and living standards in Tokyo and had to return home. “He is planning to go somewhere in the Middle East to work and pay back the loan,” he said.

Kinley Penjor, father of Tashi Yangden who went to Japan last September, said he has no complaints since his daughter is doing pretty well. “I am in touch with my daughter and she seems to be doing well so far. We were thoroughly briefed about the situation in Japan prior to the departure by the agent along with the working conditions. I am well aware of the situation there,” he said.

Besides he said that he is not worried about her as she is doing well and adapting in Japan.

Tandin Pelmo, a graduate from Sherubtse College who left for Japan a year ago, said that for her everything is normal. “It depends upon an individual, whether you want to struggle or survive. Although life here is very busy and tough the income we earn is far better than what we earn in our country,” she said.

She said juggling work and study is quite difficult but she is happy at the end of the day. 

Another student in Japan, Deki Wangmo, said that though life in Japan is not easy, one has to adjust to the new environment.  “I am able to cope with the situation now but only problem is having to work and study,” she said.

Tenzin, 27, based in Osaka said that he has not encountered any problems though the work is bit challenging. “At the end of the day if any work pays the bills and loan, then what more can one expect?”

“It is difficult here but it is not easy either in Bhutan. If you have positive mindset and if you really work hard then I don’t see any problems,” he said. “Personally, for me this is the best decision I have ever made to come here to learn and earn,” he said.

Another student, Namgay Wangmo based in Funabashi, a city located in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, said that initially language and working long hours were the only problem since they were not used to the work culture. “But now all is good though the living expenses are higher compared to Bhutan. It is difficult to save but I am able to repay my loan.”

Chencho Dema from Thimphu