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Business

Japan's housekeeping market struggles to clean up

Tough feedback on quality, rates illustrates service's unmet potential

A staffer at housekeeping service provider Bears organizes a shelf.

TOKYO -- Japan looks to turn housekeeping into a full-fledged service sector with the debut of a new certification scheme and by welcoming foreign workers, but obstacles tied to quality and rates inhibit the development of these businesses.

The number of companies that send housekeepers to customers as needed -- in contrast to traditional maids employed directly by households -- has tripled in the past decade to about 700. This market eventually is expected to grow sixfold to 600 billion yen ($5.3 billion) as Japan's population ages and more women seek employment.

"I like that I'd be able to get help with drains and other places that are hard to clean," a 50-year-old woman in Chiba Prefecture said.

Just 3% of respondents to a Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry survey had ever used housekeepers, showing the market's great potential. But many who have used the service complained that the housekeepers left before their paid time ended or did a poor job cleaning. Some customers apparently were charged exorbitant rates.

The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan expects about 800 inquiries regarding housekeeping and cleaning services during the fiscal year ending in March. To boost the quality of providers, industry groups and METI launched a new certification scheme Thursday.

Five companies, including Duskin and Bears, received the seal of approval that day. "We want to take this opportunity to continue improving the quality of our service," Bears President Kenji Takahashi said.

Certified companies can display a special logo on their website and pamphlets. This could help weed out businesses that cannot get the official nod or provide poor services.

In addition to quality, rates are a key obstacle to winning new customers. Housekeeping services on average cost 2,000 yen to 3,000 yen per hour. "It's more than what I make at my part-time job," one housewife said. "I'd rather use that money to go out for lunch," said another.

Japan's labor shortage makes lowering rates or increasing the number of housekeepers no easy task. One possible solution is to welcome foreign workers.

Major service providers plan to dispatch dozens of foreign housekeepers in government-approved zones starting this spring. Bears is considering a service in which Filipino staff teach English to children, among others, as the company aims to carve out a unique niche. Start-up Taskaji runs an online platform that matches customers and staff and requires little manpower of its own, letting the company offer help starting at just 1,500 yen an hour.

Remodeling contractors may offer a hint to the future of the housekeeping sector. Demand for renovations began surging more than a decade ago. But in fiscal 2005, the consumer affairs center received over 10,000 complaints from individuals who were charged an outrageous sum even though they never signed a contract. The market cooled, and many dishonest contractors closed amid negative online reviews and other pressures. Major players like Lixil are working to improve transparency, providing comprehensive price quotes as of last year that include construction costs.

Competition on quality and price from newcomers will be crucial to developing housekeeping into a major sector. But earning the trust of consumers will be equally important.

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