News from Japan

20th of January 2022 Article by Bobbie van der List
News from Japan

ECJ Japan correspondent Bobbie van der List meets with Hiroshi Horiguchi, managing director of the Japan Building Maintenance Association (JBMA) to talk about its main objectives. He also reflects on the Olympic Games there last year and looks ahead to some of the challenges facing the industry there.

Horiguchi greets me with a generous smile, though times have been tough for the cleaning industry, he must admit. Like most sectors, the cleaning industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, or more precisely - working from home orders have led to a drastic reduction of cleaning contracts for its member companies.

The Japan Building Maintenance Association (JBMA) is an organisation whose primary role is to update its members on new regulations, provide training and seminars to keep up with those regulations, and on top of that it also tries to influence decision-making in the political realm.

In total JBMA represents 2,800 cleaning businesses, all of whom pay a membership fee. What sort of companies does his membership consist of? Horiguchi  explains: "We have various types of companies, from big corporations to small and medium sized businesses. Some companies have a revenue of about 30 billion yen (€23 million), others 100 million yen (€7.7 billion). Currently there are around 10,000 companies in the sector."

Horiguchi continues that his association doesn't only deal with cleaning per se, part of its work is related to the sanitation business. "However almost 100 per cent of our customers are engaged in cleaning management", he says. What does their service consist of? "We focus on training and providing qualifications to technicians, create textbooks, we provide updated maintenance rules, new cleaning methods, but also new products, such as detergents."

Asked about the main challenges, he says that due to the pandemic the job of cleaners has become much more challenging. One of the things he is trying to change is deregulation, in order to make it easier to deal with new Covid-19 rules. "There is a new building sanitation law which forces us to consider Covid-19 effects in terms of temperature, humidity and air purity. And we also need to check, or we need to have certain technicians to check system of maintenance. For these people to act more smoothly we need to deregulate certain regulations for technicians. That's something we've been lobbying for. And this is also something we're training them for."

What has the impact of Covid-19 been on the sector? "This is a difficult story," Horiguchi replies. "We need building management and cleaning in offices, shopping centres and hospitals, but this changed due to the pandemic and working from home orders.

"One year ago, we didn't have contracts in hospitals. Nurses took care of cleaning, but hospitals got overwhelmed, there was no room for cleaning. That's why hospitals started specifying cleaning through us. So we needed to set up a new technician qualification, which is called Infection Control Cleanliness (ICC)."

Still some offices ask workers to work from home, which impacted on JBMA members. "This automatically shrank the industry. We don't have data, but we conducted a membership survey to ask how things have changed since the pandemic. They are trying very hard to keep work and prevent layoffs. But we don't have any exact numbers."

Most companies, he says, don't have permanent staff - they hire part-time people or students. "By reducing their hours they managed to survive, although many of the irregular workers left the industry voluntarily."

There are other issues to deal with, says Horiguchi. One of them is discrimination, an often-cited problem in Japan for people who were in close contact with infected people. "If staff were engaged in cleaning in hospitals they might be discriminated and family will be concerned. But fortunately cleaning companies work hard to protect the safety of their staff."

A far bigger concern is the general lack of workers in the cleaning industry, a problem that existed before the pandemic. Although the Japanese government relaxed immigration rules several years ago - making it easier for industries struggling with labour shortages like cleaning to attract staff from abroad - thanks to the ongoing border closure it has become more difficult to get foreign workers to come to Japan.

"Before the pandemic, the lack of manpower was a very serious problem, because fewer people want to come to our industry," said Horiguchi. "Some of our association members, for example, try to attract foreign workers by providing a work visa. Basically, Japan accepts hardly any immigrants and many industries struggle because of this attitude - construction, nursing care and building maintenance to name just a few. For those industries, Japan needs to encourage foreign workers by providing working visas." Unless foreigners obtain the right qualifications, they cannot enter Japan.

In early November the Japanese government decided to partially lift border restrictions for people who intend to come to Japan to work, a sign that things might return to normal slowly, and hopefully a solution to the cleaning industry as well.

Does Horiguchi lobby to push the government to open its borders? "We actually don't do lobby work, but when we know the government is starting talks about a new system we do show our intention to join that system, and we push politicians to go forward with it."

To indicate the importance of foreign labour Horiguchi is keen to emphasise the important role these workers played during the Olympic Games last summer. "Foreign cleaners were responsible for housekeeping at the Olympic village in Tokyo, and we received a great deal of positive feedback from both the cleaners as well as the athletes", he says.

Regarding the article in the Mainichi Shinbun, where the organisation of the Olympics and cleaning companies were accused of not properly taking care of the cleaners there he raises his eyebrow. "I read the report too, I think that article might be accurate but intention is not so clear. I asked the writer to come to office to talk in person about exactly what we are doing, to help him understand."

Horiguchi says he believes this to be an exception. "We have invited the writer of the article that was critical of the cleaning operation to discuss the situation but he declined to meet us", says Horiguchi about the journalist who first raised the issue.


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