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Foreign workers set to engage in homemaking services in Japan after lifting of ban

Filipino worker Amira cleans a kitchen during training for a homemaking service. (Mainichi)

Foreign workers in Japan have been welcomed into another sphere of the domestic labor market with the lifting of a ban on homemaking services by foreigners in the country's National Strategic Special Zones, special areas aiming to boost international competitiveness and create bases for economic activity.

Twenty-five female Filipino workers recently came to Japan following the lifting of the ban, and full-scale homemaking services in regular homes will begin this month. The government apparently hopes that such services will encourage more women in Japan to work -- a necessary step in its economic growth strategy.

Yasuyuki Nambu, chief executive officer of job placement giant Pasona Group Inc., expressed his anticipation over the change at his company's headquarters in Tokyo's Otemachi district on March 21. "We're excited," he said. At their welcoming ceremony at the company, the 25 Filipino workers wore tailored white shirts and dark suits.

A ban on homemaking services by foreigners was lifted in Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures and the city of Osaka last year, and the 25 Filipinos are employed on contracts with Pasona, representing the first batch of workers in this field. A total of six companies including Pasona will conduct business in the National Strategic Special Zones.

Information on the website of the prime minister's office states that the lifting of the ban is designed to promote an active role for women in Japanese society and meet their homemaking needs.

Elaborating, Nanbu told the new team of workers. "Homemaking wives raise their children, work and provide nursing care. If no action is taken, then women's advancement in society will be difficult in the true sense of the word. You are backup." He additionally praised the new workers as opening a page in history of women's advancement into society.

During training on March 28, one of the workers, 33-year-old Amira, visited the Kanagawa Prefecture home of 38-year-old part-time worker Akiko Tokieda, who was considering using the homemaking services. Tokieda's husband is a company employee and the couple has two children.

During her training, Amira cleaned the kitchen and the bathroom, deftly scrubbing inside the drainpipes. Tokieda's eldest daughter, an elementary school student, was impressed, calling her a "cleaning god," and Tokieda herself had a favorable impression, saying, "I never thought she would go this far."

Amira is from the island of Luzon in the Philippines. She previously worked for six years as a live-in housekeeper at an upper-class residence in Lebanon. There she wasn't allowed to go out or take time off, and worked for 16 hours a day.

"Japanese are kind, and we get holidays as well," she says. She is yet able to fluently vocalize all of the Japanese expressions she learned during training.

Some commodity prices in the Philippines are about a 10th of what they are in Japan. Amira plans to send money to her family. If it were possible, she'd like to work for a long time in Japan. But that's not allowed.

The scope of the foreign labor market in Japan goes beyond the retail, restaurant and manufacturing industries. Foreign workers also support the agriculture and fisheries industries, for example by harvesting cabbages in the Gunma Prefecture village of Tsumagoi. They have also filled the gap in work to decommission reactors at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant.

Filipino women who will provide homemaking services sing a song at their welcoming ceremony at Pasona Group headquarters in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on March 21, 2017. (Mainichi)

Japanese government statistics show that the number of foreign workers in Japan topped 1 million for the first time in October last year, reaching approximately 1.08 million. Many of them arrive in the country as students or technical trainees. These workers, who support the Japanese economy, are often left to toil on low wages without official acceptance as regular laborers.

Currently, the path for such workers to immigrate into and settle in Japan is all but closed. An action plan for work-style reform that the government compiled last month proposes comprehensively reviewing the system for accepting foreign workers and calls for concrete measures, particularly with menial labor in mind.

At the same time, however, the government states that the measures "should not be misunderstood as immigration policy." Foreign workers who engage in homemaking services are officially designated as "Foreign homemaking support personnel." This is apparently to avoid creating the impression that they are laborers or immigrants.

Amira is on a maximum three-year contract with Pasona, and when her contract expires, she is to return to her home country. And under current rules, she cannot work in Japan again.

Paid services supporting homemaking, which has been described as unpaid labor for some women, have spread in tandem with an increase in the number of dual-income households.

A survey by Yano Research Institute Ltd. found that the market for household work stood at 98 billion yen in fiscal 2012. It was calculated that this figure would increase over sixfold in the future.

Yuki Takahashi, vice president of Tokyo-based company Bears Co., which provides homemaking support services in the National Strategic Special Zones alongside Pasona, comments, "If it becomes difficult to secure manpower domestically, then foreigners will be needed. This year will be the first year of the age of infrastructure advancement in homemaking services."

Pasona has provided company housing for the 25 Filipino staff, and pays wages at a level above the market rate. Over the next three years, it plans to employ about 1,000 such workers.

However, Eriko Suzuki, a professor at Kokushikan University who is versed in immigration policy, comments, "The intern and technical trainee system has veered away from its original purpose, turning into a system that is convenient for employers. It is feared that if homemaking services by foreigners expand and are exposed to market competition, this could lead to low wages and human rights violations." She has doubts about the idea of National Strategic Special Zones, saying "To achieve an active role for women in society, there are other things that should be done first, such as reviewing the traditional role-sharing of men doing jobs and women doing housework, and providing support for raising children."

A reporter at Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV who covered the Filipinos' entrance ceremony conjectured that Japan could be exploiting the National Strategic Special Zones to accept more unskilled labor.

At their welcoming ceremony, Amira and the other Filipinos sang the Japanese song "Mirai e" by Kiroro. A translation of the opening lines goes, "Hey, look at your feet. That's the path that you're walking on. Hey, look ahead. That's your future."

But just what kind of future lies ahead for Amira and the other workers taking on household work for Japanese women behind the scenes?

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