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Japan cracks door for foreign housekeepers but pay, rights remain major issues

Kyodo

The door has opened for the first foreign housekeepers to be hired under a government policy aimed at helping women re-enter the workforce after having children.

But as attention focuses on Kanagawa Prefecture and the city of Osaka, where domestic workers will begin training this month before being dispatched, problems remain regarding the industry’s high costs and protecting workers’ rights.

Double-income households welcome the legal change, which will ease the labor shortage in the housekeeping industry, but it remains to be seen whether the new policy will produce the desired effect and increase the use of housekeepers in ordinary households.

Chezvous, a housekeeping provider based in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, has around 200 employees, half of whom are Filipinos married to Japanese and have a residency status that allows them to perform any job.

Previously, only certain households, such as those of foreign diplomats and executives of foreign companies, employed foreign housekeepers. But the recent rise in double-income households is making it easier to hire domestic help.

Juri Goto, 36, who lives in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward and has a 4-year-old daughter attending kindergarten, has been using Filipino staff from Chezvous to clean her house once or twice a month for the past two years.

Goto works as a yoga instructor twice a week while her salaryman husband returns home after 10 p.m. almost every day.

“Never mind working full time, I was swamped with housework and child-rearing. So I was relieved to get even this small amount of help,” she said.

But housekeeping services are pricey, starting from ¥8,300 for three hours.

“I’d love to work five days a week. (But) the service charge is too high to use to backup becoming a full-time employee,” she added.

People are also still reluctant to use housekeeping services.

A 2014 survey by the Nomura Research Institute of 40,000 women aged 25 to 44 in metropolitan areas found that only 3 percent had used housekeeping services, citing the “expensive service fees” and reluctance to let strangers into their homes.

“To speed up use of the services, companies need to provide subsidies for the costs and have a framework in place to lessen the economic burden (on families),” said the research firm’s chief consultant, Kana Takeda.

“Companies are also placing more effort on job assistance for women, but not only (in) reduction of working hours or leaves of absence. There’s a trend happening to support women who are really making efforts toward their achievements,” Takeda said.

Experts also question the profitability of the housekeeping industry.

Chezvous has held off from entering the business in some of the designated areas where foreign housekeeping agencies are allowed. Most service providers are mainly based on part-time employment, but a full-time work week of at least 40 hours is demanded in the designated areas.

“We can’t always match people with jobs. The strain on companies, including the training costs before (foreign workers) arrive in Japan is big for service providers, so first of all we have to be watchful of the movements of large companies taking the lead,” said Chezvous President Kisun Yu.

Bears Co., a large housekeeping firm, will dispatch domestic helpers in the two designated areas.

“The industry has a chronic labor shortage. We can see the market expanding in the future, so we decided on a prior investment,” said Bears Vice President Yuki Takahashi.

The government has been promoting employment of foreign nationals, but many are under the government’s “skills acquisition program,” which critics calls a guise for hiring cheap labor under illegal working conditions.

Foreign workers complain of problems stemming from an inability to cope with the language barrier to the difficulty of obtaining redress for grievances.

Under the rules, foreign housekeepers are not permitted to become live-in employees in the designated areas because that might lead to their working environments becoming breeding grounds for harassment or violence. In addition, their pay must be equal to that earned by Japanese.