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Keevee’s Story: Unfair Dismissal Highlights Flaws in Japan’s System for Hiring Foreign Domestic Workers

Masutomo Takehiro [Profile]

[2018.07.24]

Japan launched a scheme to bring in foreign domestic workers in 2015 to reduce the burden of housework for women with active careers. However, the system is currently flawed, as seen here in the story of Keevee, who was abruptly dismissed without adequate cause.

A Dream Tarnished

In June 2017, a middle-aged Filipina set for employment as a domestic worker in Japan wept tears of joy on a Tokyo-bound airplane. A fan of the idol group SMAP and the anime Your Name, her excitement was such that she felt she could even kiss the runway after landing in a country where she had long wanted to live and work.

She never imagined that in just four months an unjustified dismissal would leave her at her wits’ end.

I met Keevee (not her real name) at a café in central Manila. Since returning to the Philippines, she has been living in the suburbs of the city with her 15-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. It is difficult to conceive how much her sudden firing has thrown her life plan out of joint. After an initial bright greeting, her face clouded over as I asked her to tell me how her Tokyo life came to an end.

Keevee at a Manila café.

On Friday, October 13, 2017, she was performing her regular duties, cleaning a customer’s home in Tokyo’s plush Azabu district. There was a box she had never seen before on the living room table. Remembering a request that she should keep everything spotless due to a child in the family having asthma, she opened the box and put toys and a child’s purse—back where they belonged. Then, just as usual, she checked her schedule on her mobile phone and continued work. Her company allowed employees to make reasonable use of their phones.

That evening, after Keevee had returned to her apartment, she had a sudden visit from a staff member of the domestic services company that employed her. There had been a complaint against her. The customer whose house she had been cleaning said that she had been acting strangely on a security camera recording.

Keevee said that the customer was unhappy she had touched the child’s box and that she had seemed to be taking pictures with her phone of the inside of the house.

The following Friday, she was called to her company office and abruptly fired. The reason given was the customer’s complaint. As she had not taken any pictures and had simply closed the purse when she saw it contained valuables, she had expected at worst to be scolded. She burst into tears at the unjust punishment. Three days later, the company gave her a return plane ticket to the Philippines.

Her notice of dismissal stated that she had used her mobile phone during work hours against company instructions and that this had led to her being suspected of taking photographs of a house’s interior. It went on to say that this behavior contravened three clauses in her rules of employment, including “committing criminal acts while in or outside work.”

Flaws in the System

Lawyer Oie Kōsuke, an expert on foreign labor, has his doubts about the legitimacy of the company response. “Whether her actions merited punishment under the rules and whether, if they did, that punishment should be immediate dismissal—both of these questions are problematic,” he says. It is certainly hard to conceive that using one’s phone is a sure sign of criminality.

When I contacted the company, a representative responded that “the use of the mobile phone in this case was not based on acceptable reasons within the necessary bounds of work duties,” but added that this was not the only cause of dismissal. However, the company refused to give the background to the decision or specific reasons for the firing, citing the need to protect personal information.

Another representative said that the company had submitted a report on the incident to a third-party management committee including members from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and relevant central government ministries and agencies. However, the report makes no specific reference to anything that could be classed as a crime. It simply mentions the phone and the child’s purse. The committee has taken no action to address the problem, and one committee member took the side of the company with the comment, “It’s an industry where customer opinion is everything.”

Keevee’s employment came under the auspices of a scheme for introducing foreign domestic staff into the Japanese workforce in selected strategic special zones—promoted by Prime Minister Abe Shinzō as a way of supporting Japanese women who are busy with their careers. Legislation came into effect in September 2015 allowing domestic-service companies to hire overseas workers on fixed-term contracts up to a maximum of three years and offer services within the zones. The management committee approves and oversees participating businesses. More than 100 workers have been hired from the Philippines under the scheme; they are now working in Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Osaka Prefectures, the locations of the special zones.

In Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Middle East, where domestic workers may live with employers, there have been numerous reports of human rights issues, such as abuse and overwork, within the four walls of private residences. By contrast, the workers in Japan’s special zones are employed on business contracts. They are not allowed to live in the households where they work. The scheme also guarantees them pay that is at least equal to Japanese workers, such that the supervisor of Tokyo’s special zone said that their rights were highly protected. Upbeat headlines greeted the start of the initiative in Tokyo last year, such as one in the Yomiuri Shimbun comparing the incoming workers to foreign sports stars.

Keevee’s case clearly shows, however, that the Japanese system has its flaws.

First, it is effectively impossible for foreign domestic workers to change jobs within Japan, leaving them dependent on their companies. As with foreign “technical trainees,” this means it is actually easy to violate their rights.

Support systems are also ineffective. The companies hiring foreign workers are required to publicize helplines and consultation services by distributing stickers with contact details to employees. Although her company claims to have given them out during training, Keevee has no recollection of receiving the stickers, which meant that she did not think of contacting a service when she was dismissed. The requirement to fully inform employees, at least, was not properly met.

Professor Suzuki Eriko specializes in immigration policy at Kokushikan University. She states that given Keevee’s vulnerable position, the management committee should have called her in for a hearing when members heard about the case, as part of active measures to understand the situation.

Wages for foreign domestic workers are likely to come under scrutiny. From the employers’ perspective, training for positions in Japan is not cheap. The Tokyo special-zone supervisor suggested that it could rise to tens of thousands of yen per worker. For this reason, some companies are seeking subsidies from the national government and local authorities.

From the workers’ point of view, however, their real wages are not that high. Keevee was being paid ¥160,000 per month, but this dropped to ¥80,000 after deductions for rent and other costs. Assuming that pay levels for domestic work remain steady or decline in Japan, while rising in other countries, including the Philippines, there will be less incentive for workers to travel here. There have been reports that China will soon remove obstacles to hiring domestic workers from the Philippines, so the supply-demand relationships in Asia may well shift drastically.

Professor Suzuki warns that the scheme may end up derailing from its initial course. This has already happened with an earlier scheme to bring “technical trainees” to Japan to gain valuable skills to take back to their own countries; in the end, many of them have been pressed into drudgery that leaves them with little to contribute to their native lands. At present, duties carried out under the initiative by foreign employees are limited by ordinance to housework. One could easily imagine this expanding to other areas with high domestic demand, like looking after children and providing nursing for the elderly. As the companies involved find that housework in a handful of select zones is not that lucrative, they may seek to offer a wider range of services in households and raise the prices they charge.

Efforts in Vain

Despite the serious issues and concerns, there are already many Philippine workers employed in Japan under the system. If the special zones prove successful, the government looks set to expand the scheme nationwide. Hyōgo Prefecture is making preparations for accepting foreign workers. The domestic labor market was worth ¥98 billion in fiscal 2012, but may grow to six times that size. If the number of foreign domestic workers increases as expected, Japan should seriously consider ratifying the International Labor Organization’s Convention 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers, in order to protect their rights. There has been a tendency in many countries not to apply relevant labor legislation when employment takes place within the private space of the home. This convention is groundbreaking in setting international labor standards for domestic work, and includes provisions for protecting migrant workers like Keevee.

When I asked her about Japan’s system, Keevee responded as follows.

“It’s not required in other countries, but to work in Japan I earned qualifications in the Japanese language and domestic labor. I also had to pass a number of interviews, which reduced 500 applicants to just two successful candidates. This took more than a year in total. Compared with that hard work, it was just too easy to dismiss me. The system is unbalanced.”

To reduce the housework burden for its wealthy families, Japanese companies require special efforts from Philippine domestic workers—whom, in turn, they can discard at the drop of a hat. We should not simply stand by and watch this kind of lax system expand further.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 10, 2018. Banner photo: Manila, capital of the Philippines, a primary source for Japan’s foreign domestic workers. Courtesy of Masutomo Takehiro.)

  • [2018.07.24]

Journalist. Born in Fukuoka Prefecture in 1985. Completed a master’s degree in international relations at the University of California, San Diego, before joining the Chinese company Caixin Media. Researcher at the National University of Singapore from 2014 to 2016. Now writes about Japan, the Chinese-speaking world, and Southeast Asia.

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