New ways of finding cleaners in Japan

29th of May 2018
New ways of finding cleaners in Japan
New ways of finding cleaners in Japan

While Japan has never been a country prone to allowing in migrants to solve labour market issues, due to a rapidly declining population and a low fertility rate it reluctantly pushed for policy changes to make it easier to welcome migrant workers. Bobbie van der List reports for ECJ.

While Japan has never been a country prone to allowing in migrants to solve labour market issues, due to a rapidly declining population and a low fertility rate it reluctantly pushed for policy changes as to make it easier to welcome migrant workers. The government has introduced so-called National Strategic Special Zones in Kanagawa, Osaka and Tokyo prefecture – where it will become easier for foreigners to engage in housekeeping services, among other industries.

The Japanese HR company Pasona Group took advantage of this regulation and welcomed 25 cleaners from the Philippines who have worked there since March. I sat down with the company’s deputy general manager Makiko Sawafuji, who oversees the entire process. We sit down with Ms  Sawafuji to get a better understanding of what the programme means for the Japanese cleaning industry.

ECJ – Thank you for making time to speak to ECJ. What drove you to take part in this program of the special zones and hire foreign workers?

Makiko Sawafuji – The working population is declining. Shinzo Abe (prime minister of Japan) has been trying to find ways for women to get into the labour force since last year. Despite his effort, when you want more women to go and be active in the work environment, they have a lot to do on the side: taking care of children, house care and elderly care. Some people need to leave work to take care of their elders. You have all these things going on for women in the workforce. We wanted to alleviate some of this burden by having a service that provides outsourcing of household chores.

However it is impossible find people who want to do housekeeping work in Japan. That’s why we wanted to reach out to foreigners, get their help, and in turn help Japanese women to have more time to do whatever they want. Some of them might be able to return to the workforce as well.

ECJ – Wouldn’t raising their salary be a good start to see if Japanese people will become more willing to do cleaning work?

Makiko Sawafuji – I think you don’t get people to do cleaning if you raise their salary, it’s a cultural thing. Cleaning is something which is done by the family, we don’t have a tradition of outsourcing this. You don’t go into someone’s house. In Japan, you usually go outside to meet people in a restaurant, for example.

Growing demand

ECJ – But at the same time you suggested there is a growing demand for housekeepers?

Makiko Sawafuji – We want to have the service more available to people who want to use it. We think it is acceptable to outsource housekeeping, we want that kind of mindset to become more popular within Japanese culture. Changing this mindset will be an ongoing process.

ECJ – What does Pasona Group do to change this mindset?

Makiko Sawafuji – I think this will take time. In the future hopefully, Japan will become more like Singapore or Hong Kong, where it is normal to have people from outside cleaning your house. But it will take time,as I said, because Japanese people tend to not want people they don’t know coming into their house. Still people feel responsible for cleaning their own house.’

ECJ – At the same time mindsets are slowly changing. You have decided to get a certificate for the National Strategic Special Zones Kanagawa and Tokyo. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Makiko Sawafuji – We went to the Philippines to hire and train Filipino cleaners. The educational training varies according to each agency. We provide 400 hours of training in Manila. This includes Japanese language training and the Japanese style of housekeeping services. They start with Japanese language skills, after 400 hours they can do daily conversational Japanese. But they are still undergoing Japanese lessons when arriving here. The first batch taking part in this project ended up coming to Japan in March of this year. We did 15 hours more training in Japan.

ECJ – How many ended up actually coming to Japan?

Makiko Sawafuji – We had 28 staff in Manila who passed the exams, but only 25 actually came to Japan. We also do tests and health checks, there are a few criteria. In the end 25 were prepared to go to Japan.

ECJ – What are the biggest challenges for the cleaners?

Makiko Sawafuji – The biggest challenge is the Japanese language. Our service is mainly used by Japanese women in their 30s and 40s, who are working. The cleaners go to their house when the client is not home. Japanese language only becomes an issue when women are working from home, for example, and communication might be necessary.

Usually a cleaner goes to the client’s home together with a salesperson from Pasona. They listen to the client’s requirement, priorities. And practical aspects, such as when to throw away the rubbish, etc. The clients know they’ll be helped by a foreign worker. When they contact us, they know they are asking for a foreign housekeeper. We have 25 currently, and we are still waiting for second group. They have undergone training Manilla, but we are waiting for the visas to come through.

ECJ – Some companies, like another Japanese company Bears KK, have criticised the tough regulations Japan sets for foreign cleaners, while Japanese cleaners don’t need to meet such strict criteria. What is your opinion on that?

Makiko Sawafuji – This is a new programme, probably it is this way because it is a new programme with the special zones where cleaners can work. I don’t think it’s the country’s fault per se.

Cultural differences

ECJ – Are there any cultural obstacles for the Filipino cleaners?

Makiko Sawafuji – There are small cultural differences. But in terms of housekeeping skills we are very satisfied. Especially because housekeepers from the Philippines are very well qualified, the country itself does foster housekeeping as a professional service, they need to have a certificate. I think the technical skills of Filipino housekeepers are very high.

ECJ – But they don’t face any technical obstacles, such as cleaning with Japanese equipment?

Makiko Sawafuji – It is not that different, perhaps just a few tools. But at Pasona we don’t look so much to the technical aspect. Instead, we value the lifestyle and work style in Japan, because I think the technical part comes easily to them because they’re great professionals. But in terms of work the style in Japan is different from what they’re used to. For instance, in their previous work in other countries they usually lived inside a client’s house. In Japan, when it comes to the strategic zones that opened, you can’t live in a client’s house, that’s against the regulations. Currently the 25 women live in a dormitory.

But we value other aspects as well. For instance, they wear suits going to work and they have multiple clients at the same time. They are employees of Pasona and that’s how we like to treat them. We want to help them with living and working circumstances in Japan. Previously, when they worked in other countries, they didn’t have the same fringe benefits we provide to them. But we also help them to make them feel at home in Japan.

We have HR services globally. We provide training for personnel who are going to Singapore. At Pasona we know what kind of support and training a worker would require living abroad. From buying a train ticket to where they can buy Filipino food, or where churches are. All these kind of details – it is the details we focus on.

ECJ – This helps for cleaners to really take pride in their work, right?

Makiko Sawafuji – We don’t see them as a ‘labour force’, but as human beings. If you have someone coming from abroad, you also need to look at their values, religion, personal goals - we take all that into consideration. We have seen in the past that this works very well.

Another aspect we focus on, because we are an HR company; the key phrase should be ‘how to cultivate their careers’. They are only allowed to stay in Japan for a maximum of three years now in the current special zone programme. While they are here, for example, we provide training so that their Japanese skills are enhanced, and other qualities that they may have will be fostered. We want them to go back to the Philippines after the three-year programme and build on their experience in Japan. We don’t want it to be a one-way street where people come to Japan, do the work and that’s where it ends. We want it to grow into something bigger and continue when they take the next step in their careers.

One of the cleaners that takes part in the program is Ana Liza Gutierez Masamok. At age 43, working in Japan provided her with a new opportunity after having previously worked in the UK and Hong Kong.

ECJ – How is it going for you so far?

Ana Liza Gutierez Masamok - We arrived here last March. We live in a dormitory with all the other Filipino women. I’m used to it, away from family. It is like being with my friends. The hardest part is the language, but when it comes to purely working skills I have a lot of experience. I know I can perform my job well. Language is the issue, when the language barrier sets in.

I need to call staff support if this happens to help translate what the client says or needs.

ECJ – What is different from your previous job?

Ana Liza Gutierez Masamok – In the past I worked in nursing home, where we helped the elderly in the morning, tidied up their rooms, changed the bedding and washed their clothes. Here the job description is much clearer: we do housekeeping only.

ECJ – You know you will only stay for three years, after that most likely you need to leave the country. How do you feel about that?

Ana Liza Gutierez Masamok – If there’s a chance for the government to extend the visa, I would grab that opportunity.

ECJ – Ms. Sawafuji, is there any information about what happens after this three-year period?

Makiko Sawafuji – Now, it is clear they must return to their home country. There are no plans to change this. As a company we need to oblige, because we are running the programme within the zones. The agency needs certificates for each zone, Tokyo and Kanagawa.


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