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Household help will let Japanese women thrive: Poppins CEO

Childcare company plans to hire up to 100 Filipinos this year

Poppins founder and CEO Noriko Nakamura

TOKYO -- As part of its strategy to foster economic growth, the Japanese government revised a "special zones" law in 2015 to allow foreigners to work as housekeepers in certain parts of the country. For Noriko Nakamura, founder and CEO of Tokyo-based child care service Poppins, it was a case of "better late than never."

Poppins will soon have five Filipino housekeepers working in Kanagawa Prefecture, one of the deregulated zones, southwest of the capital, along with Osaka and Tokyo, where selected companies will be allowed to hire foreign housekeepers. Poppins plans to take on 50 to 100 Filipinos this year.

In a recent interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Nakamura, who also heads the Japan Association for Female Executives, talked about Poppins' plan to hire foreign housekeepers and how the industry will change the way Japanese people work.

Q: What was your immediate reaction when you heard about the government's plan to allow foreign housekeepers?

A: Too slow, I thought. They could have done it much sooner. There are some negative ways of thinking in the government -- saying that these foreigners might stay in the country illegally, bring their families from abroad and do work they are not allowed to do.

To assure safety and reliability, we partnered with Philippines' leading human resource provider, Magsaysay Global Services, which will give 200 hours of training, including courses on Japanese language and customs. We will provide extensive support to our customers so they can use our services without any worries.

We are not hiring these women simply because the housekeeping services industry here is understaffed. They are highly skilled professionals. Their attitude toward work is phenomenal, and I think Japanese housekeepers would even fall short of them.

Q: Poppins has mainly been focused on child care. What led your company to enter the market for foreign housekeepers?

A: Since our establishment 30 years ago, our aim has never changed: to provide services to help Japanese working women. While we started out in baby-sitting services, and later moved into nursing care and operating child care centers, we found that there was also demand for housekeeping services.

With the special zones coming into effect, Magsaysay's President and CEO, Doris Magsaysay Ho, contacted me because they were looking for a Japanese partner. They have been training and dispatching Filipinos, including housekeepers, around the world. I visited their training center in the Philippines and saw their high standards.

Q: What is unique about Poppins' housekeeping service?

A: We will enter all three zones as we have a branch in Osaka, and Tokyo is where our main clients are. For the first batch in Kanagawa, we selected five Filipinos from 20 applicants. Once we get some positive customer feedback, after starting the service in April, we plan to hire around 50 to 100 Filipinos in total this year.

Other industry players are also hiring Filipinos housekeepers in the special zones, some through Magsaysay. But we selected those with university degrees and nursing licenses. This connects well with our current business. With their skills, they should have no problem even working as baby sitters or caregivers.

Q: Some in the industry have raised concerns about strict regulations within the special zones. What are your thoughts?

A: One issue is that we have to hire full-time workers, which will require us to pay the same salary and benefits as our Japanese employees receive. Efficiently applying their eight working hours to the service is a challenge. Otherwise, our business will not bear fruit even if we hire hundreds of qualified foreign staff. We are currently surveying our customers' needs.

Foreign housekeepers should not be limited to work in these zones. The government should allow them nationwide. Along with other industry players, I will ask the government for more liberalization, so these housekeepers can also work as baby sitters or caregivers, which are what working Japanese women really need.

Q: Surveys show Japanese women are reluctant to leave the housekeeping to others. The high cost is another reason why such services are not popular, correct?

A: Lack of experience with the service leads to reluctance. Some customers felt they needed to clean their houses before our baby sitters arrived, and stopped using the service because they were tired out. In some cases, neighbors would bad-mouth families that outsource child care, and customers would ask our staff to come in through the back door.

Our housekeeping services cost around 3,000 yen (about $26) per hour. Apart from housekeeping, our Filipino staff can teach English to kids and even drop them off and pick them up from child care centers. This is a unique service that we will offer in the zones, after I negotiated with the government. We would like to make it more affordable, but training is expensive and other indirect costs are high, too.

Q: Do you think the housekeeping industry will change the way Japanese people work?

A: I'm certain it will. More than half of Japanese women give up returning to their jobs after having their first child. They need the social infrastructure to continue working flexibly, even after they marry or have children. We cannot expect them to work the same way men do, with such long hours. There is nothing attractive about it and there is no need to do so. We must change so women can thrive.

Many working women would like to take care of the housekeeping themselves, but they have so little time. Younger Japanese men are now more willing to help, but I don't think cleaning and cooking is the only ideal way of caring for your family. At a time when dual-income households are increasing, spending more time with your children or your partner by outsourcing housekeeping can be another way of having a fulfilling life.

Interviewed by Nikkei staff writer Tsubasa Suruga

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