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Hope, concern as number of company-established child day care centers rises

A woman brings her child to the Kazusa Midorinomori day care center on the grounds of the Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. (NSSMC) Kimitsu Works factory, in Kimitsu, Chiba Prefecture, on the morning of June 25, 2018. (Mainichi)

KIMITSU, Chiba -- In a corner of the vast grounds of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. (NSSMC) Kimitsu Works factory here with lines of blast furnaces and smokestacks, parents leading children by the hand gather at around 8 a.m.

This is the site of Kazusa Midorinomori day care center, opened by NSSMC in April 2017, and the parents are dropping their children off for the day. There are 28 children enrolled in the nursery, whose parents work at the factory east of Tokyo. Azusa Ito, 29, who leaves her 2-year-old daughter at the day care center said, "Since it is near my work, I'm pleased it doesn't take much time to drop my daughter off (before heading to work)."

The company has also set up day care centers at its Oita Works factory location in Oita Prefecture and both of its Yawata Works factories in the city of Kitakyushu, both in southern Japan, and plans to open a fourth facility at its Nagoya Works locations in Tokai, Aichi Prefecture, in central Japan, this October. The biggest reason for the rapid surge of day care facilities is a serious labor shortage crisis.

Roughly 18,000 people are employed at Kimitsu Works, including those belonging to related companies. Of them, some 90 percent are male. However, in recent years, it has become more difficult to secure enough workers employing men alone, and beginning around five years ago, NSSMC has concentrated efforts on hiring female workers. The company also built toilets, shower rooms, break rooms and other facilities on the previously male-dominated grounds of the factories. It is hoped that the establishment of the day care facilities will be NSSMC's trump card to employ women who are trying to balance work with childrearing. With three shifts at the factory per 24-hour period, the day care is also run on a 24-hour basis.

In addition to places like factories and other manufacturing facilities, there has also been a movement in industries like transport and retail, which are also facing labor shortages, to expand day care facilities within the company. Seven-Eleven Japan Co. has introduced day care centers directly attached to its convenience stores for employees.

Harumi Seki, 31, a resident of Tokyo's Ota Ward, gave birth to her second child in May 2016, but because she could not find a day care center to look after her child, she fell into the vicious circle of not being able to find work either. However, when she found out that a Seven-Eleven convenience store in Ota Ward had attached a day care facility, she decided to take on a part-time job there. "Since the working hours are short, I can also spend precious time with my children," she said, full of satisfaction.

Behind this increase of nursery facilities built by firms themselves is a push for company-driven childrearing projects promoted by the central government. While the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has held up the goal of eliminating the number of children waiting to get into day care facilities, efforts have run into obstacles to secure land for new facilities in urban areas along with other issues, and increasing the number of government-led and certified nurseries has shown its practical limits. This has led to the promotion of facilities built on the grounds of companies instead to ease the bottleneck of children for whom parents cannot find day care.

If certain standards are met, for a model with an example of 20 employees, a company can receive aid from the government of some 110 million yen for the construction of a day care facility and around 33 million yen annually for operation costs. In turn, these facilities can offer services not allowed in government-certified nurseries, such as care for children during the night and using the center only two days out of the week -- all for around the same price.

Since the start of the system in April 2016, there were 2,597 facilities lined up to receive government funding for a total capacity of 59,703 children as of March 2018. While the central government sees this as a promising move toward the goal of eliminating wait time for day care, apprehension still remains over entrusting companies too much with the responsibility of providing child care.

However, when compared to government-certified locations, the company-driven centers are held to looser standards concerning factors such as the assignment of nursery care workers, and worries about the declining quality of care are deeply rooted. It is often the case that a company will consign the operation of the day care center to a contractor, but in comparison to the government-certified facilities, it is more difficult for regulators to monitor the situation at the nurseries, and there are worries about safety management and leaving too much up to firms.

The government allows several companies to establish a joint day care center under the system. However, the reality is that for Japan's small to medium-sized businesses that hire roughly 70 percent of the entire workforce, the bar is still set too high for opening a nursery.

"To balance work and childrearing, it is necessary to not only make use of so-called hard policies like the establishment of day care centers, but also make full use of soft policies like changes in work-style on the job," pointed out Kiyomi Akita, head of the Center for Early Childhood Development, Education and Policy Research at the University of Tokyo.

This is Part 1 in a series.

(Mainichi Shimbun)

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