Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Too little caregivers in Japan

Jan 28, 2009

Govt offering slew of incentives to get people to take up nursing care

By Kwan Weng Kin

TOKYO - ALTHOUGH there are jobs galore in Japan's nursing-care business, there are few takers.

Low pay and working conditions that often stretch a caregiver's patience and stamina to the limit scare away even those who view welfare work as a personal calling.

Ironically, the global downturn that has chilled Japanese exports and sent thousands of factory workers to unemployment lines may prove to be a godsend to nursing homes.

The government hopes to entice some of these retrenched workers to become caregivers. By March, the end of the Japanese fiscal year, about 80,000 factory workers are expected to be out of work, and more could join them if the economy worsens.

Japan's nursing-care business is one of the high-growth sectors thanks to its rapidly ageing population. There are now about 1.1 million people working in the industry.

But in five years' time, it is projected that the industry will require another 300,000 to 500,000 more workers. That is because the number of elderly Japanese requiring nursing-care services will rise to six million, up 1.5 million from the present figure.

The problem is how to make a caregiver's job more attractive.

The government has set aside about 210 billion yen (S$3.6 billion) in this year's budget to increase insurance payments to nursing-care providers by an average of 3 per cent.

In theory, that should give each nursing-care worker a monthly pay hike of about 20,000 yen. Unfortunately, providers are not obliged to translate the increase in insurance payments into higher salaries.

Besides, an increase of 20,000 yen does not mean very much to the individual worker. The typical caregiver takes home about 200,000 yen a month, about 70 per cent of what the typical worker in other sectors makes.

The money is enough for a single person to get by on but much too little if he or she wants to get married and start a family. Poor salaries are said to be the chief reason one in five caregivers leaves the job after a while.

The large number of resignations means more work for the caregivers who remain, making an already back- breaking job even more unappealing to people both inside and outside the business. Chronic staff shortages also mean that care facilities are compelled to turn away clients even though there are empty beds.

Earlier this month, the Labour and Welfare Ministry set up a project team to come up with concrete measures to fill vacancies in medical-related sectors, including 26,000 jobs in the nursing-care industry alone.

For instance, employers are to receive an incentive payment of 500,000 yen to one million yen for each person they hire as a caregiver.

The government also plans to underwrite all the training costs for caregiver positions. The basic caregiving course involves about two months of lectures and practical work such as how to give a bath to an elderly person, how to feed him and so on. There are no examinations.

'Our industry is very short of people, so it is good that the government is willing to provide free training for retrenched workers so that they can become caregivers,' said Mr Shiro Kawahara, chairman of Nippon Careservice Craft Union (NCCU), which boasts nearly 54,000 members. 'We think ours is a wonderful occupation. But if vacancies are to be filled simply by people who have nowhere else to go, it merely cheapens our work.'

The government also plans to increase the size of interest-free loans to college students enrolled in nursing- care courses to help out with living and other expenses. The loans will not have to be repaid if the students agree to work for five years in an approved care facility after graduation.

Free trade agreements with Indonesia and the Philippines have meanwhile opened the way for trained caregivers from these two countries to work in Japan.

Some 200 Indonesians are currently attending classes here to enable them to communicate in Japanese, and they are scheduled to move to nursing-care facilities around the country later this month. They are given four years to obtain the necessary caregiver licence in Japanese, failing which they would be sent home.

Care providers are allowed to hire them to do simple chores, most likely at lower than market rates since they cannot function as fully as their Japanese counterparts.

Critics suspect that the scheme may be just an excuse for some nursing homes to bring in cheap foreign labour. It was not long ago that many small Japanese factories, farms and fisheries had caused a huge public outcry when it was revealed that they hired foreigners at meagre wages to do manual work on the pretext that the foreigners - most of them from Asian countries - were trainees.

The government has stressed that bringing in foreign caregivers is only to foster closer economic cooperation with the two countries and not intended to plug job vacancies.

But NCCU's Mr Kawahara said the government should first work to improve working conditions in the business. 'There are a lot of Japanese with the qualifications but who do not want to become caregivers. There are also many thousands of people without regular jobs. Working conditions should be made more attractive so that we can first get more of these people to become caregivers,' he said.

'Bringing in cheap foreign labour at this stage only stifles our attempts to improve working conditions for our members.'

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