Can Foreign Housekeepers Help Japanese Women Shine?

Politics Economy Society

The government is tentatively opening up Japan’s household staffing industry to foreign recruits as part of its policy to support workforce participation by Japanese women. Staffing services Pasona, Bears, Poppins, Duskin, and Chez Vous have signed on to a pilot program in designated zones in Kanagawa and Osaka Prefectures, where placement of foreign housekeepers is expected to start as early as March.

Until now, the government has granted work permits only for foreign housekeepers directly employed by diplomats and other “high level” foreign personnel earning at least ¥10 million a year. Foreign nationals can work for domestic staffing agencies if they have already secured residency status as the spouse of a Japanese citizen, for example, but not otherwise.

The decision to begin relaxing hiring regulations in the industry reflects an understanding by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and his cabinet that women are unlikely to play a more active role in the labor force unless we can lighten the burden of housekeeping and childcare. The program is a first step toward increasing the “outsourcing” options available to women, and as such is to be welcomed.

The big question is whether the “experiment” as designed has a reasonable chance of success.

The Affordability Factor

A survey conducted by Nomura Research Institute in 2014 found that only 3% out of 40,000 respondents were currently making use of housekeeping services. The main reasons cited for not using such services were concerns about letting strangers into one’s home, a reluctance to leave domestic duties to others, and expense. The going rate charged by Japan’s domestic staffing agencies is about ¥3,000 an hour. And the government’s current plan to open up the market to foreign workers will do nothing to lower those rates. In fact, it is likely to push them higher.

Under the new pilot program, foreign housekeepers cannot work directly for an individual or family. They must be employed on a full-time basis by a Japanese domestic staffing agency, and their employment is limited to a period of three years. The placement services must pay the foreign workers wages equal to or higher their Japanese counterparts. The recruits must be trained in their home countries so that they can communicate in Japanese and perform such domestic duties as preparing miso soup.

These requirements will incur added costs that companies will either have to pass on in the form of higher rates or absorb as the price of staking out a claim in a brand-new market. Of course, an experiment like this is a step forward. The concern, though, is that if the high rates discourage women from taking advantage of the service, then policymakers will conclude that the experiment was a failure because demand is insufficient.

Redressing a Competitive Disadvantage

My guess is that the program’s designers envision a very limited group of potential users, namely, women in high-paying professional and management positions. Among my own acquaintance, there are certainly some in this group who like the idea of hiring a Filipina housekeeper who could teach the children English while cleaning the house. Some women might be more comfortable opening their house up to a foreigner than to someone who could violate their privacy by reading the Japanese communications lying about.

The bottom line is that the policy is not oriented to helping the average Japanese woman. But the program could still do some good if it helps Japanese businesswomen and professionals overcome their own lingering misgivings about hiring domestic help.

In other countries, it is quite common for women in positions of professional responsibility to outsource domestic work. Yet in Japan they seldom do. Like the respondents to the aforementioned survey, they are reluctant to give strangers access to their homes, and they feel guilty about having others take over childcare and household duties that are regarded as an expression of maternal love.

In today’s increasingly globalized job market, this puts Japanese women at a severe competitive disadvantage. They are essentially running the race with a 50-pound weight tied to their backs. They need to look on the cost of outsourcing as an investment in their own future.

Hong Kong’s Live-in Arrangements

In 2015 I did a story on Japanese families in Hong Kong and their experience with foreign domestic helpers, who are commonplace in the territory. Hong Kong has experienced a number of problems since it opened its doors to foreign domestics in 1973, but there is still much to be learned from its experience with foreign household helpers and placement agencies.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Hong Kong’s system is the fact that live-in arrangements are the rule, whereas Japan forbids such arrangements in principle. While the Hong Kong government claims that a housing shortage is the main factor behind this trend, the biggest reason is probably the fact that it lowers costs. As of June 2015, the annual salary for foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong dipped as low as 31,000 Hong Kong dollars, about US $4,000. If the helper is on duty 16 hours a day, then this amounts to about one-fourth of the legal minimum wage. By rights, the minimum wage should be the same for all, regardless of nationality. But since foreign housekeepers are also provided with food, lodging, and medical care, Hong Kong’s Labor Department insists that the total package meets local pay standards. Meanwhile, the low rates mean that even middle-income households can afford to hire domestic help.

On the other hand, live-in arrangements are risky for both sides. They make the employee more vulnerable to harassment and exploitation. And families often feel uneasy about leaving their children in the care of a domestic all day long. On the other hand, even housekeepers who commute, as in Japan, work in a private home, away from prying eyes, so the same risks exist to some degree.

Domestic Help as a Business Expense

As the direct employers of the foreign domestic helpers, Japanese staffing agencies will have a wide range of responsibilities, including finding their workers decent and affordable housing, protecting them from harassment and abuse, and monitoring their working hours to prevent exploitation. Thus far, Japan has not ratified the International Labor Organization’s Convention on Domestic Workers. If it intends to admit foreign nationals as domestic labor, it needs to ratify the convention as soon as possible.

For staffing agencies, the main benefit of participating in the government’s pilot program is gaining experience and establishing a track record of training, coordinating, and placing foreign domestic helpers. In the process of working with overseas training agencies and bringing the trained recruits to Japan, they will doubtless accumulate valuable know-how. Then, if the industry grows, the agencies can set up their own training programs, which will save them money.

Still, high rates unquestionably threaten the plan’s viability. Some agencies are said to be lobbying the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry to lift the requirement that foreign workers be paid at the market rate for Japanese housekeepers.

One way to lower the cost to users without cutting wages would be for corporations to reimburse employees for the cost of domestic staffing services. Corporations that offer so-called cafeteria plans, which allow employees to select from a menu of benefits, could include a domestic-help subsidy among those benefits.

Tax incentives could also have a big impact. During deliberations on the latest revision of the tax code, tax authorities studied the idea of making babysitting expenses tax-deductible, but they decided to defer action. It is a topic worth revisiting. If the authorities were to recognize such costs as a necessary employee expense, it would help spur a general shift in attitudes and help women overcome their feelings of guilt about outsourcing housework and childcare.

We know that such a change in norms is possible from our experience with care of the elderly. The Long-term Care Insurance Act, which came into effect in 2000, increased the number of helpers and aides available to assist the elderly at home. But few households took advantage of such services initially, because care of the elderly was traditionally viewed as the duty of the daughter-in-law. That has changed in the past 15 years, and nowadays it is hard to find anyone who disapproves of the use of home helpers and aides.

Maintaining the Daycare Option

In Hong Kong, where so many families have access to live-in domestic helpers, daycare centers are few and far between. Instead of increasing daycare capacity, the government encourages middle-and upper-income households to rely on low-cost domestic help. But even the best domestic helpers cannot substitute for a good daycare center or nursery school. Although a child may get more individual attention from a “nanny,” a quality daycare facility offers a better environment for socializing young children.

Japan has ongoing issues with daycare capacity, but the quality is very high overall. Although waiting lists remain a problem, the government is working to address the issue by increasing the number of ECEC centers (kodomoen) that combine the functions of day nurseries and kindergartens, while opening up other options, such as family daycare.

The best way to support Japanese women’s participation in the labor force is probably to have daycare and ECEC centers play the central role in childcare, while relying on domestic helpers to take children to and from these facilities and perform miscellaneous housekeeping duties.

An Urgent Need for Home Health Aides

Under the new pilot program in Kanagawa and Osaka, care for the elderly lies outside the scope of a domestic helper’s job. Yet this is an area in which Japan is facing a dire shortage. One wonders if the government is eyeing the possibility of using foreign nationals as home health aides at some point.

The use of foreign domestic helpers is on the rise in a number of East Asian countries, such as Taiwan and Singapore, as well as in Southern European nations like Italy and Spain. What these countries have in common is a strong belief in the central role of the family in childrearing and care of the elderly. Now, finding themselves with insufficient long-term care facilities, they are turning to foreign workers to provide the affordable care that will allow women to participate in the labor force. Japan resembles these countries in its emphasis on filial duty and its relative lack of nursing care facilities. Yet it remains extremely closed in its immigration policies. This makes Japan a very unusual case, according to a 2014 report by Itō Yoshinori.(*1)

It is clear that Japan cannot build enough new nursing homes to accommodate all the people in need of long-term care. Home-based care is the only alternative, but there are simply not enough people to provided the needed home services. We have reached the point where we need to think seriously about admitting foreign workers to work as home health aides.

That said, it is also vital that we protect the jobs and wages of Japanese workers. If foreign nationals are to be admitted as domestic helpers and home health aides, we must ensure that they do not undercut the wages of Japanese domestic and healthcare workers. It is time to begin serious work on an integrated package of immigration, employment, and tax reforms that can protect our workers while addressing our urgent domestic needs and lightening the burden of Japanese women.

(Based on a January 21, 2016, interview. Originally published in Japanese on February 10, 2016. Banner photos: A Philippine housekeeper interacts with a Japanese family in Hong Kong [left; courtesy of Nomura Hiroko]; household staff may free up Japanese women to play fuller roles in society [right; courtesy of Chez Vous].)

(*1) ^ Itō Yoshinori, “Senshinkoku ni okeru gaikokujin kaji rōdōsha no zōka yōin no kokusai hikaku bunseki” (Comparative Analysis of the Prevalence of Migrant Domestic Workers in Developed Countries), Hitotsubashi University Center for Intergenerational Studies Discussion Paper Series 630 (August 2014),

Abe Shinzō staffing service ILO foreign workers housekeepers minimum wages daycare nursing homes day nurseries