February 5, 2018 1:15 pm JST

Japan's elder care providers head to Myanmar

Youthful Southeast Asian country offers workers and an eventual market

YUICHI NITTA, Nikkei staff writer

Japan's nursing care providers see business opportunities in Myanmar as the country's population begins to age.

YANGON -- As Southeast Asia begins to confront its creeping population aging problem, Japanese companies that provide nursing care see an opportunity to reach new markets -- and to bring much-needed caregivers to Japan.

Since December, a consortium including Japanese nursing care providers Sakura Community Service and Egao Ichiban has been experimenting with home health care operations in Myanmar's commercial capital of Yangon with the support of Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Japanese certified caregivers and others are there until February to evaluate the feasibility of a home nursing care business while training local staff.

One patient in the trial run is a 68-year-old Yangon man disabled by a stroke 15 years ago. His wife, 64, has cared for him since, but a knee injury has made doing so more difficult of late. For the past three years, she has had difficulty taking her husband far beyond the vicinity of their home.

At-home care could help alleviate some of these difficulties. On a recent visit, a 23-year-old health aide helped wipe down the patient's limbs, chatting kindly with him all the while.

Only about 5% of Myanmar's population is 65 or older at present, according to United Nations figures. But that share is projected to double by 2030. While relatives and domestic workers have handled most caregiving in the past, demand for specialized nursing care services has grown in recent years as more women have begun working outside the home. Businesses providing those services will most likely cater to the middle and upper classes, as there is no system for long-term care insurance in Myanmar.

Southeast Asia "cannot repeat Japan's mistake of prioritizing the creation of caregiving facilities" over at-home care, said Sakura chief Hideaki Nakamoto. Myanmar's government is prepared to address the challenges of population aging head on. State hospitals are set to launch a dedicated occupational training center for caregivers this year, and the government is exploring a system for educating and certifying caregivers based on the Japanese model.

In the short term, Sakura and its partners look to bring caregivers trained in Myanmar to Japanese facilities through Japan's foreign technical trainee program. Caregivers became eligible for participation in that program last November, letting those who meet other qualifications work in Japan for up to five years. After that time is up, the companies' Myanmar operation will place participants in jobs back home.

The foreign trainee program, ostensibly meant to enrich participants' job skills, has in the past been used to bring low-wage workers into Japan, giving rise to human rights abuses like punishing work hours and wrongful confinement. Sakura's Nakamoto insists that, in the nursing field, foreign workers will enjoy the same wages as their Japanese counterparts. If the arrangement succeeds, it could benefit both sides, easing Japan's shortage of qualified caregivers while enriching Myanmar's caregiving expertise long-term.

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