Laundry firm’s flexibility cited as reason why single moms don’t quit

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Since joining the laundering company Kikuya in 1995, Akemi Hirayama says she has never missed a day of work.

Hirayama, who works at a Kikuya facility in Matsubushi, Saitama Prefecture, was commended for her 10 years of service with the company this month.

When times are busiest, the 45-year-old part-timer handles 300 to 400 bags of clothes a day. All items need to be thoroughly checked before washing to ensure the buttons are sewn on securely. They need to be checked again afterward, to see whether the stains have been removed.

As a single mother raising a 15-year-old daughter, Hirayama said she was happy to work as a part-timer because the company’s system allows her to set her own working hours.

She took the role after getting divorced.

“I knew I would need to raise my child on my income alone,” Hirayama said. “If I were employed full time, my duties and responsibilities would not allow me to devote my time to my child if something happens to her.”

Kikuya, based in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward, has branches in Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture. While laundry service is a male-dominated industry, 90 percent of Kikuya’s roughly 200 workers are female, and 85 percent of the women work part time, said Kikuya President Shinichi Nakahata.

The women who work part time are less inclined to quit than those who work full time, he added.

Kikuya celebrates its 60th anniversary next year. It has tried hard to make the workplace more suitable for women, especially working mothers.

Among measures taken to lighten the load, the company has replaced stick-shift delivery cars with vehicles with automatic transmission, and has developed lighter, easier-to-operate steam presses.

It also introduced a system more than a decade ago to allow women to bring their school-age children to the workplace after school.

Kikuya promotes workers regardless of their type of contract, enabling high-performing nonregular employees to become managers or team leaders.

Nakahata calls its employment system “order-made,” saying it enables employees to work according to their own will.

“It would be a waste if skilled women who have the right to have and raise their children did not have a chance to use those skills,” said Nakahata, 52, himself the father of three children.

He said Kikuya plans to open nursery schools near its facilities so that working mothers can have their children taken care of at relatively affordable prices.

Mothers will not have to pay market rates, as the company will cover some of the costs itself.

Nakahata said it has been hiring an increasing number of single mothers in recent years, mirroring their rise in the wider population.

“Single mothers are usually more devoted to their work, but they lack support in many areas.”

Hirayama said single mothers receive government assistance to pay for their children’s education, but such benefits discourage some mothers from working, because the amount varies depending on their annual income.

Miyuki Yoshida, 48, another single mother who has worked there for 15 years, was the first to start bringing her daughter to the office. The girl was in elementary school at the time and is now aged 21.

Yoshida began working full time when her daughter entered junior high school and has now become the company’s board member in charge of strategies to reduce costs and improve workflow.

Yoshida believes more single moms would like to use their full potential, but many simply stay at home and expect the government to cover the costs of child-rearing and education.

“Those who rely only on support from the government put all single mothers, including women who work really hard, in a bad light,” she said.

In addition to giving financial assistance, it is important to create an environment that makes it easier for single mothers to work at the same time as raising their children, she said.

Among Kikuya’s employees are workers from overseas, including China and Vietnam, and some of them have been promoted to higher positions.

Two years ago, Kikuya opened a branch in Thailand, which covers 14 separate facilities. It introduced there the flexible working conditions that proved so successful in Japan.

“Our policy is to let workers build a happy family and make it their top priority, as I believe that if someone’s private life is not fulfilled, he or she would not be able to work efficiently,” Nakahata said. “It’s difficult to get people interested in working for a laundry firm, but I hope we can get more people who want to work at Kikuya.

“In the past, children used to be brought up in communities with help from elderly people in the neighborhood. This is the characteristic of Japan’s culture, which I want to bring back to life,” Nakahata said.