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Thursday, Sep. 27, 2012
Refugees get second chance under Uniqlo program
Internship deal with UNHCR helps raise clothing store's global profile
By MASAMI ITO
It was a dream come true for refugee Khadiza Begum when she landed an internship with Fast Retailing Co last fall. She learned the inner workings of a major corporation and was soon given a part-time job at one of the firm's Uniqlo stores in Tokyo.
An ethnic Rohingya, Begum's life is finally beginning to come together after living her whole life in fear of being sent to Myanmar, where she would be persecuted.
Begum is one of the first refugees in Japan to be chosen for the internship program with the popular clothing maker that began last year as part of a unique collaboration between Fast Retailing and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The two parties established a sort of exchange internship program in which Fast Retailing staff would assist in refugee camps abroad while refugees in Japan would be given the chance to intern with Uniqlo.
The program, the first of its kind by a major Japanese corporation, is viewed by experts as an effective way to raise awareness of the plight of refugees while giving them job experience that could expand their skill sets.
"I want to do something for my people and for refugees in the future. That is my goal," said Begum, 26. "And Uniqlo is the perfect job for that. It really is like a dream come true."
Born and raised in Bangladesh, Begum has never set foot in her home country of Myanmar, where Rohingyas are not recognized as citizens by the nation's government. The Muslim ethnic minority is said to be one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.
She has spent her whole life as a refugee because her father had been engaged in antigovernment activities and fled Myanmar in the 1970s for fear of retaliation.
Begum arrived in Japan in 2006 after marrying Musharaf Hussain, another ethnic Rohingya and the son of an old family friend who had been recognized as a refugee in Tokyo. Life in Bangladesh was not bad, but Begum was eager to get a better education.
Like many other recognized refugees in Japan, Hussain struggled to get a steady job, working at factories and waiting tables at a sports bar to make ends meet. But somehow he managed to make enough while Begum immersed herself in Japanese studies. She was ultimately awarded a scholarship and enrolled in Aoyama Gakuin University in 2009.
"My father has been spending his whole life trying to fight for the Rohingyas and he repeatedly told me that in order to have people listen to what you have to say, you need to be well-educated," Begum said. "That's why I didn't give up till the end and studied so hard."
For Begum, attending university was already a major accomplishment, but higher education also opened other doors.
It was during her junior year in 2011 that she heard about the Uniqlo internship. Fulfilling the necessary requirements, which included current college enrollment and Japanese proficiency, Begum joined several other refugees and Japanese students on a two-week internship program.
During the program, participants not only experienced the retail side of Uniqlo at the stores, they also received leadership training and held discussions on management.
After the internship wrapped up, Begum was hired as part-time staff while she continued her studies at Aoyama Gakuin.
"There was no special treatment for me just because I was a foreigner," she said. "We were all expected to be able to work at the same level. Reality was severe and I realized that I really had to work hard in order to be accepted as a working member of society."
According to Fast Retailing's Eiko Sherba, of the firm's Corporate Social Responsibility division, the refugees were also helping the company and its staff develop a more global perspective.
"We knew that many refugees abroad and in Japan were smart and very skillful," Sherba said. "They just needed an opportunity to show what they could do and we realized that providing such opportunity was something that we could do.
"Refugees have been through experiences that we cannot begin to imagine and through this internship program, the Japanese staff are also learning a lot from them," Sherba added.
The candidates are screened by the UNHCR with some nongovernmental organizations and then a list is given to Fast Retailing. Begum and one other refugee living in Osaka were the first refugees to join the program in September last year, and decided to stay on, hoping to land a full-time job once they graduate. Fast Retailing has held two such rounds of the internship program in Japan so far, with a total of nine refugees having already participated, Sherba said.
The partnership between the Uniqlo operator and the UNHCR initially began to take shape in 2006 after the clothier approached the body in hopes of donating recycled clothing to refugees. The move was part of the company's policy of recycling all pieces of clothing purchased at Uniqlo that are no longer worn. Currently, all Uniqlo shop have recycling boxes for such clothing, which is either donated to refugees or turned into fuel or fiber.
"As a company that produces and sells about 600 million pieces of clothing per year, we felt it was important not just to sell them but also to take responsibility to collect them and make sure that they are useful for resources or for society," Sherba said.
The internship program eventually emerged from further discussions about collaborations, Sherba added.
The UNHCR has worked with several major corporations worldwide, including Microsoft Corp. and Nike Inc., but Fast Retailing is the first not only in Japan, but in Asia as well.
Johan Cels, the UNHCR representative in Japan, stressed that the first comprehensive collaboration with a major Japanese firm would engage customers in the recycling process and boost awareness of refugee issues.
The internship, meanwhile, provides a rare opportunity for recognized refugees to get an inside look at a major corporation, Cels said.
Japan is often the target of international criticism for the very limited number of recognized refugees it allows, despite being a signatory of the U.N. Refugee Convention. And while refugees must make it through an extremely strict screening process, the harsh reality is that jobs with high-paying salaries are scarce regardless of their background or expertise. This has left many toiling in factories or at construction sites in order to save enough money to scrape by.
"We've had a number of refugees participate in the internship program and it is great. . . . It is not always easy for refugees in Japan to start a new life and to get jobs," Cels said.
According to the government-affiliated Refugees Assistance Headquarters (RHQ), which provides job support for recognized refugees, it has helped 5,222 find work — from Indochina refugees in the late 1970s to, most recently, ethnic Karen refugees — since RHQ was established in 1983. Most refugees work in factories, cleaning businesses and in the service industry.
Hidehiro Hosaka, the director of planning and coordination at RHQ, said the organization tries to reach out to small- to midsize companies that might be willing to hire refugees. But under the current economic climate, he said, finding jobs for refugees has been getting harder and harder.
"Times have changed from the days when manufacturers were willing to hire anyone," Hosaka said. "All companies are going through tough times right now and we don't target high-level corporations," he said.
But Begum is hopeful that more Japanese firms will follow Uniqlo's lead in reaching out to refugees here. Begum, who is pregnant with her second child and currently on maternity leave, expressed enthusiasm to continue working for Uniqlo, which she said has enabled her to move closer to her ultimate goal of assisting ethnic Rohingyas and refugees around the globe.
"I think that Uniqlo can be a good example for many other companies. Somebody has to take a step forward to make a change," Begum said. "We are just like everyone else with dreams. But we just need that opportunity to make them come true."