March 27, 2014 12:00 am JST

Let foreign domestic workers ease strains for Japanese families

MOTOSHIGE ITOH

An Indonesian nurse takes care of an elderly person at a hospital in Niigata Prefecture.

Stories of working women having to quit their jobs for family reasons -- to care for their aging parents, to focus on their children -- and of women who give up on having kids altogether to keep their careers on track are commonplace in Japan. Readers will be familiar with such stories themselves.

     That is why more nursing facilities and day care centers are desperately needed. Still, these facilities can only do so much. Many people feel compelled to quit their jobs to care for their children or family members. Naturally they feel a lot of stress, but this problem imposes immeasurable losses on the Japanese economy as well.

     When I went to visit a friend in rural Taiwan, I was astonished to see that my friend's mother, who was almost 90, had the help of a Southeast Asian woman -- that in Taiwan, foreign helpers assist with household chores and caregiving, even in the countryside. My friend's sister told me that having a helper enables her to spend more time on other things.

     While I was aware that families in Hong Kong and Singapore often have domestic workers from elsewhere in Southeast Asia, I started seeing them occasionally in Taiwan as well. Another Taiwanese friend has a live-in housekeeper who helps care for an elderly family member. Families living with seniors or three or more children are allowed to hire Southeast Asian helpers, my friend told me.

     I did not study the Taiwanese system in detail, but I would like to propose that the Japanese government consider introducing a similar system, letting families utilize human resources from elsewhere in Asia in certain circumstances, such as if they have elderly members who need care.

     As Japanese society ages, providing adequate in-home care is becoming a serious issue. Adopting a system similar to that in Taiwan would benefit both the elderly themselves and their families.

     Allowing households with three or more children to hire foreigners as domestic helpers is another interesting idea. While this would be a privilege of sorts, such a program would require absolutely no taxpayer money. If it helped families raise children without requiring public spending, while at the same time encouraging couples to have children, the idea merits serious discussion.

     One important question is the cost of hiring foreign caregivers. I was told by the friend in Taiwan last year that the cost was around 50,000 yen ($488) per month, depending on the exchange rate. My friend guessed this was more than people in Hong Kong pay.

     Some say Japanese people do not like having live-in or visiting housekeepers or caregivers and that even if a system for hiring them is introduced, they would not be popular. But given that many people are forced to choose between work and caregiving or raising kids, it may not be a bad idea.

     Japan has economic partnership agreements with the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries in Asia. It should look into bolstering these partnerships to allow hiring of people from these countries as domestic helpers under certain conditions. 

Motoshige Itoh is a professor at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Economics and a member of the government's Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy.