YOKOHAMA - The door has opened for the first foreign housekeepers to be hired under a Japanese government policy aimed at helping professional women re-enter the workforce after having children.
But as attention focuses on Kanagawa Prefecture and Osaka city, where domestic workers will begin training this month before being dispatched to several locations, problems remain regarding high service costs as well as questions about protecting workers' rights.
Double-income households welcome the legal change, which will ease labor shortages in Japan's housekeeping industry, but it remains to be seen whether the new policy will achieve the desired effect and become pervasive among ordinary households.
Chezvous, a domestic work service provider based in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward, has around 200 employees, half of whom are Filipinos married to Japanese and who hold resident status that allows them to work in any job.
Previously, only certain households, such as those of foreign diplomats and executives of foreign companies, had employed foreign housekeepers, but the recent rise in double-income households with higher incomes is making it easier to hire domestic help.
Juri Goto, 36, who lives in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward and has a 4-year-old daughter attending kindergarten, has been using Filipino staff from Chezvous to clean her house once or twice a month for the past two years.
Goto works as a yoga instructor twice a week, while her husband, who is a company employee, returns home after 10 p.m. almost daily.
"Never mind working full time, I was swamped with housework and child-rearing. So I was relieved to get even this small amount of help," she said.
But the cost of the services, which starts from 8,300 yen (about $73.00) for three hours of work, is pricey. "I'd love to work five days a week. (But) the service charge is too high to use to backup becoming a full-time employee," she added.
People are also still reluctant to use domestic services.
A 2014 survey conducted by the Nomura Research Institute of 40,000 women ages 25 to 44 living in metropolitan areas found that only 3 percent had used housekeeping services, citing the "expensive service fees" and resistance to allowing strangers into their home.
"To speed up use of the services companies need to provide subsidies for the costs and have a framework in place to lessen the economic burden (on families)," said the research firm's chief consultant, Kana Takeda.
"Companies are also placing more effort on women's job assistance but not only for recognizing reduction of working hours or leaves of absence. There's a trend happening to support women who are really making efforts for achievements," Takeda said.
Experts also question the profitability of the industry.
Chezvous has held off from entering the business in some designated areas where foreign housekeeping agencies are allowed. Domestic service providers are mainly for part-time employment, but a full-time work week of at least 40 hours is demanded in the designated areas.
"We can't always match people with jobs. The strain on companies, including the training costs before (foreign workers) arrive in Japan is big for service providers, so first of all we have to be watchful of the movements of large companies taking the lead," said Chezvous President Kisun Yu.
Bears Co., a large housekeeping service provider, will dispatch domestic helpers in the two designated areas. "The industry has a chronic labor shortage. We can see the market expanding in the future, so we decided on a prior investment," said Bears Vice President Yuki Takahashi.
The Japanese government has been promoting employment of foreign nationals but many are under the government's skills acquisition program that critics say is a guise for hiring cheap labor under illegal working conditions.
Foreign workers complain of problems stemming from being unable to cope with the language barrier and the difficulty of demanding redress for grievances.
Rules stipulate that foreign housekeepers are not permitted to become live-in employees in the designated areas to avoid their environments becoming breeding grounds for harassment or violence and that their pay be equal to Japanese.
Solidarity Network of Migrants Japan, which specializes in foreign labor issues, says workers must have fair wages even if more people start using housekeeping services.
"You can't have a situation where service fees are lowered and wages are cut to get more users. It's necessary to carefully examine if there are any holes in the system instead of blindly expanding the business when problems still exist," said the organization's secretary general, Motoko Yamagishi.