A man’s claim that his wife, who worked at a day care center in Aichi Prefecture, was forced to apologize to her employer for getting pregnant ahead of senior coworkers, has highlighted how the labor crunch in female-dominated sectors can affect operators.

The complaint went viral online after a major newspaper published the man’s letter in February. In the letter, the 28-year-old man said he accompanied his wife to the private nursery school in Aichi where she worked to apologize for getting pregnant ahead of her older coworkers. The man, from Nagoya, claimed the center’s head had set rules for when female workers were allowed to get married or pregnant. The man was also quoted as saying that his wife was exposed to repeated scolding “for arrogantly breaking the institution’s rules.”

Experts and people familiar with the situation in the child care industry say such practices showcase the difficulties faced by service providers and the struggle to attract workers amid tough working conditions and low pay.

Ikkei Ikeda, a member of the Tokyo-based Kaigohoiku Union, a labor union composed of workers in institutions providing nursing care services, said employment conditions discourage many people from entering the workforce.

“Many women say that the working environment in day care centers isn’t friendly to women who want to raise children so women quit” if they think of starting a family, Ikeda said. “The situation in most day care centers doesn’t allow workers to take days off even when they get sick, not to mention a longer leave.”

He added that low wages also discourage people from joining the workforce. A government survey conducted last year showed that full-time care providers with 8.8 years of experience earned an average ¥262,158 per month.

“Pregnancy order and similar rules will more likely make workers quit rather than obey the rules,” Ikeda said.

But another expert said the practice could actually help providers manage the labor crunch since many employees are young women.

“I think it’s a likely practice in female-dominated workplaces,” said Naoki Sakasai, executive director of the Tokyo-based Hoiku Research Institute, who studies the working conditions and practices of day care centers nationwide.

“Basically, day care centers are overloaded with work but fail to attract new workers,” Sakasai told The Japan Times. “When a (female employee) gets pregnant, it’s obvious she would have to take maternity leave, and nursery schools can’t afford it.

He added that due to working conditions, employees quit at an early age and at a high rate. As of the end of March, the number of job vacancies in the sector stood at 463,000, according to labor ministry data.

The labor shortage has resulted in an increase in the number of children on public day care waiting lists, which has been growing for the past three years along with an increase of working mothers. The number of children on the waiting list stood at 26,081 as of April 2017.

Sakasai said the government’s guidelines for day care centers specify that one staffer is required to take care of up to three infants under 12 months of age. The average number of children in day care centers hovers around 100, out of which roughly six are under 1 year old, he said.

“It may cause difficulties if a worker who has just gained enough experience to handle the job independently takes a break, as the operator would need to employ a new staffer with slim chances the new employee would have enough experience,” he said.

Shigeki Akita, a social insurance and labor consultant who advises operators of beauty salons — another sector dominated by women — said that such businesses also face problems with the labor crunch.

“The Aichi couple’s case is quite extreme, and I believe it’s not common (in beauty salons),” Akita said. “But salon operators also struggle with securing workers, and we’re still trying to find the best way to deal with it … and create an environment where women can juggle work with child-rearing. At this point, it’s hard for women to take maternity leave.”

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