Open door sought for foreign caregivers

by Tomoko Otake

Should doctors, nurses and masseurs accredited by one country be allowed to practice in another after a bilateral free-trade agreement has been reached?

Questions like this will probably take center stage in Japan’s FTA talks with Thailand and the Philippines.

Thailand hopes Japan will open its doors to Thai massage therapists and loosen restrictions on chefs. The Philippines, which launched FTA talks with Japan last week, is eager to send nurses and caregivers.

Yasunori Wada, deputy director of the health ministry’s International Affairs Division, said it will “never” abandon its two principles that foreign health care workers must be certified under Japanese law, and that their acceptance be limited so unemployed Japanese are not aced out of job opportunities.

Wada said safety is the main reason foreign health care workers need to obtain Japanese licenses.

“We are constantly worried how we can maintain the quality of staff in health care,” he said.

There is mounting public concern in Japan over medical malpractice, he said.

But Thailand’s government, which is asking Japan to accept Thai massage therapists, said their entry would not jeopardize the Japanese labor market, let alone pose a health threat.

“For FTAs to be mutually successful, both countries must respect their own labor systems,” said Kunyaphan Raengkhum, commercial minister with the Thai Embassy in Tokyo.

“I understand that Thai masseurs will have to acquire a certain level of Japanese so they can communicate,” he said. “But have any of the Japanese flight attendants and businesspeople who have received Thai massage during a stopover at Thailand had trouble? I can’t understand why Japan is making such a fuss.”

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is apparently skeptical about the quality of services provided by people the Philippine government calls caregivers or nurses aides.

Wada said he suspects the Philippines simply wants to dispatch semiskilled workers. The country has made labor export a national policy, he said.

The Philippine government dismissed the idea that its caregivers are unskilled workers.

“These are skilled people,” Philippine Ambassador to Japan Domingo L. Siazon Jr. said. “What we are trying to do here is bring in people who have been trained as nurses or nurses aides, and they will also have to learn Japanese.”

Siazon expressed confidence that the two nations can strike a compromise, given that Japan’s birthrate is falling and its workforce is shrinking.

“In the medium to long term, Japan will have no choice” but to accept health care workers from abroad, he said. “You make a lot of cameras, DVDs, animated films — everything. But you don’t make Japanese anymore.

“Unless Japanese people are born, you cannot maintain the social structure of this country.”