The Japanese government has warned companies against dismissing or targeting foreign trainees who get pregnant while working in the country, officials said Thursday, with some women having been compelled to consider an abortion or to return home.

With many interns expressing concern about the impact a pregnancy may have on their employment status, the government on Monday told organizations that accept and supervise foreign trainees that it would violate the Japanese gender equality law if the women are unfairly treated due to marriage, pregnancy or childbirth.

(File photo shows foreign workers in Miyagi Prefecture.)

The government-sponsored technical internship, introduced in 1993 to transfer skills to developing countries, has faced criticism at home and abroad over perceptions it is used as a cover for companies to import cheap labor.

Government bodies including the justice and labor ministries also said in a note sent to the organizations that they should not unjustly curtail trainees' private lives as it would be in breach of the internship program law.

The document also urged the supervising organizations that connect trainees with host institutions to inform interns about the laws.

The warning came ahead of the launch of a new visa program in Japan next month, which will allow the entry of more workers from abroad to address the country's serious labor shortage.

Those who have taken part in the existing technical intern program in Japan for more than three years will be able to obtain the new visa status to be created from April, and the government expects many interns to apply.

The Justice Ministry said it has received reports from supporters of technical interns which highlight cases in which pregnant trainees were threatened with dismissal.

Similarly, the Zentouitsu Workers Union, a Tokyo-based labor organization that assists foreign workers, said it has received numerous requests for consultations from female trainees.

Last November, a Vietnamese woman in her 20s who arrived to train at a paper factory in western Japan, told the union that an official of a training center, a subcontractor of her supervisory organization, told her "either choose to abort or return to your home country."

The woman had also signed a contract with a recruiting company in Vietnam that required her to return home in the event of a pregnancy, a stipulation that would be illegal in Japan.

In January, a Chinese trainee in her 20s was arrested on suspicion of abandoning her newborn baby in a residential area near Tokyo, fearing that her employers at a food processing plant would force her to return home.

"Since the scheme for foreign technical interns itself does not allow for cases of pregnancy or childbirth, trainees believe that they cannot become pregnant," said Shiro Sasaki, the labor union's secretary general.

"The lack of preparation in creating the system is the reason for forced abortions and returns. The cases that have come to light are only the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer knowledgeable about problems faced by foreign trainees, said the fact the government needs to remind and inform those involved that it is illegal to disadvantage and coerce pregnant interns "shows the seriousness of the issue."

"Those who dismiss or force trainees to return home because of pregnancy must merely think that trainees are cheap labor or useful slaves," he said. "If they cannot treat them as humans, they have no business accepting them."