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Economy

Japan lays the groundwork for domestic workers from overseas

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A domestic helper folds laundry 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, southwest of 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, freeing up other people to pursue careers outside the home.

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 work full time, is home to more than 200,000 foreign domestic helpers. A live-in maid typically earns about $900 or less per month. Some analysts say the availability of inexpensive domestic workers supports Singapore's economy.

In Hong Kong, too, maids from the Philippines and Indonesia help working women and their families.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS   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 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, a U.S.-based news network.

However, migrant worker groups argue the ban will not improve working conditions and 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 over allegations of abuse. Myanmar is the third-largest dispatcher of maids to the country, behind the Philippines and Indonesia.

Many women from Myanmar and Indonesia choose to go abroad to work where wages are higher than in their home countries.

In the U.S., many housekeepers come from Mexico, though many enter the country illegally. Their status makes it difficult to track the prevalence of substandard pay or working conditions.

Protecting the human rights of these workers has become a major issue. The National Domestic Workers Alliance, a U.S. nonprofit organization, has teamed up with state governments to improve matters. According to Ken Yamazaki, a senior researcher at the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, the effort is beginning to bear fruit. In 2013, the state of Hawaii changed the rules, giving foreign domestic helpers the opportunity to negotiate with their employers, with assistance from workers associations.

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

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

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