The role of housekeepers has come under the spotlight as the government looks to them to provide working mothers with help at home as one way to prop up the nation’s dwindling workforce.
Under the government’s plan, visa requirements have been relaxed in two regions to allow more foreign nationals to work as housekeepers in Japan.
But industry insiders say the plan has shortcomings, including the potential high cost of training and housing foreign staff, and it will take more than just boosting the number of housekeepers to make it work.
The following is a closer look at the government’s plan:
How did the idea of turning to housekeepers to help women work come about?
Creating a society where “women can shine” is a pet policy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who sees the female workforce as being idle at home and “burdened with child-rearing duties.”
The government, looking for ways to boost the workforce amid a graying and shrinking population, formulated a plan last month to grant foreign nationals special visa status to work as housekeepers in the special economic zones of Kanagawa and Osaka prefectures.
The program is intended to boost numbers in the short-staffed housekeeping industry, and domestic media were quick to report that the idea had support from key industry players.
Companies such as Bears Co., Duskin Co., and Pasona Lifecare Inc. reportedly plan to participate in the program.
Registered dispatch agencies will have to hire foreign nationals on a permanent basis rather than as part-timers or subcontractors, as is the case with most Japanese. Employers will also be required to pay wages similar to those of Japanese staff, and secure their accommodation.
At present, work permits for foreign housekeepers are granted for housekeepers brought to Japan by “high-level personnel,” such as diplomats, to work for them during their stay. Other non-Japanese housekeepers — many of them Asians, including Filipinos — are mainly those who gain residency status based on reasons such as being married to a Japanese.
Are housekeepers a viable solution to boost the female workforce?
Sachiko Wada, who operates the Taskaji online matching service for people seeking household assistance and those who wish to provide it, says they are.
Wada cited a government survey in which more than 70 percent of respondents said women “are not playing active roles” in society and about 40 percent cited household chores and child-rearing as the reason.
“I started Taskaji because I myself found no fitting service as a working mother,” she said. “Someone in the household needs to take care of household chores, but it’s a problem for society if it is only the women who are burdened with them.”
How much do housekeeping services cost?
Services currently available cost between ¥40,000 and ¥80,000 a month for three hours of housekeeping a week, according to Wada, who added that such high costs would defeat the idea of women re-entering the workforce as it can eat into much of the pay they would earn working part-time.
Industry insiders acknowledge the key is to make housekeeping affordable to ordinary households, not just the wealthy.
Wada clearly sees potential in her business.
“A street survey by Kajitaku Co. on 1,000 people said 62 percent of respondents are interested in using housekeepers, and of these people, 53 percent said they are willing to use the service if it costs ¥19,800 a month,” she said.
What does the industry think of hiring more foreign housekeepers?
While housekeeping service insiders say the move is a welcome step forward, they aren’t optimistic about the details.
“Details of the plans need further work, but I think it’s a step forward in that it’s the first government effort to change the way Japanese families live,” said Yuki Takahashi, managing director of Bears Co., which is based in Tokyo.
“I might add, though, I wouldn’t give it a 100 percent approval.”
Requirements for dispatching services to hire non-Japanese workers are high.
They need to be hired under a full-scale employment status, instead of on a part-time or temporary basis, for up to three years; paid the same level of salary as their Japanese counterparts; and employers must arrange accommodation outside the client’s home. Employers also need to provide the necessary training programs and shoulder other costs to help foreign housekeepers adjust to Japan.
The combined cost would contribute to pushing up service prices, which are considered prohibitively high already, Takahashi said.
“We think we will have to set up a team dedicated to look after our non-Japanese staff daily . . . to monitor them — though I hate to use that word — to make sure they won’t be involved in some kind of an incident, etc.,” she said.
“Given the requirements, we think non-Japanese workers may cost somewhere around 20 percent more than Japanese counterparts. If Japanese housekeepers ended up (costing less) than non-Japanese, that would be a disappointment.”
Taskaji’s Wada agrees.
“Unless we solve the problem of high prices first, the deregulation is unlikely to be successful,” she said.
She noted that without finding a way to lower the cost it may result in the program benefiting only the wealthy, whom she sees as the main client currently.
“They should think of who their program is intended for,” said Wada. “I think the government’s target is middle-income households, but the plan won’t work that way.”
What are the hurdles in using non-Japanese housekeepers?
Housekeeper-dispatch agencies currently have a hard time finding enough workers, Japanese or otherwise, said Yoshimitsu Fujinami, whose Yokohama-based startup Kajitoku Asia dispatches mainly Thai housekeepers, in addition to Japanese workers.
But even with such a shortage, hiring non-Japanese housekeepers would not resolve the problem in an industry where language skills are key.
“For example, you need to leave a note to the users saying, ‘Detergent is low. Please buy a box’ or ‘I left such and such in the shelf in the bedroom,’ ” said Fujinami. “Non-Japanese workers would have difficulty if their written Japanese skills are low. They would need solid training in the Japanese language.”
Wada and Takahashi are both concerned that households many look warily on non-Japanese workers, whom they may regard as strangers entering their homes.
But once they get to know them, they’ll notice how professional they are, Wada said.
“Filipino housekeepers, for example, do a great job in being unobtrusive,” Wada said. “They are real professionals. You don’t have to talk to them much — they know what you want them to do and they do their job quietly.”