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Japan gets ready to welcome foreign housekeepers

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A Filipina domestic helper in Singapore.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to build a society in which 100 million Japanese can happily live and work. The government plans to take a step in this direction by next March by letting people from foreign countries into Japan to help with the housekeeping.

These domestic helpers will first be allowed to take jobs in Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo, and other "strategic special zones" designated by the government.

Singapore, Hong Kong, Europe and the Middle East are already big employers of domestic helpers, who free up the women where they are employed to have careers and play significant roles in society.

A Spanish woman working in Singapore has a live-in maid. "As she does housekeeping for me," the woman said, "I can concentrate on working and looking after my children."

The Singaporean government issues work permits for domestic helpers. The city-state, where many wives and mothers have regular jobs, is home to more than 200,000 foreign domestic helpers. A live-in maid typically earns $900 or less per month, and there are some who believe their affordability indirectly supports economic growth.

In Hong Kong, too, Philippine and Indonesian maids help working women and their families.

But domestic helpers are often mistreated, overworked or have their human rights abused in other ways.

Some governments of countries from which these domestic helpers hail are growing concerned about the working conditions their citizens face abroad.

Last year, Indonesia's government stopped sending new maids to 21 countries and regions in the Middle East and Africa, citing a lack of reasonable labor standards. "The practice of Indonesian women going overseas to work as housemaids must stop immediately," President Joko Widodo was quoted as saying by CNN, the U.S.-based news organization.

However, migrant worker groups argue that the ban will not improve anything, that it will only end up driving the domestic helper industry underground, exposing poor women to even greater risks, CNN reported.

According to Singaporean news reports, Myanmar briefly banned sending maids to Singapore in 2014 and again in 2015 because some of the women were allegedly abused in the homes they kept tidy.

Myanmar is the third largest provider of maids to the rest of the world.

Many Myanmar and Indonesian women who leave their countries to work as domestic helpers prefer going to

Singapore, where wages are higher than in their home countries.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is home to many housekeepers from Mexico, though many enter the country illegally. Their status makes it difficult to shine a light on how poorly they might be paid and treated.

Protecting the human rights of these workers has become a major issue. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has teamed up with governments to work on improving the situation. According to Ken Yamazaki, a senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, the effort is beginning to bear fruit. The state government of Hawaii, for example, in 2013 decided to give foreign domestic helpers an opportunity to negotiate with their employers, with help from workers associations.

The Pasona Group is training Filipinas to keep house in Japan(Photo courtesy of the Pasona Group)

In Europe, foreign domestic helpers have become particularly common in Germany, France and Italy. According to Rie Miyazaki, a professor at Ohtsuki City College, Yamanashi Prefecture, there were 700,000 eligible foreign domestic workers in Italy in 2010. In Italy, these workers play a significant role in caring for the elderly.

In Japan, the Pasona Group, a temp agency, is already training eligible Filipinas who by next March will be able to take housekeeping jobs.

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