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Graying Japan opens doors to RP nurses, caregivers

TOKYO (AFP) – Ask wheelchair-bound 81-year-old Hisae Kajiwara about the new workers at her nursing home and a smile comes to her face.

"They are really cheerful and make the atmosphere here very bright," she says.

Another woman, 79-year-old Mitsu Sekiguchi, also confined to a wheelchair, chimes in: "And they always make the beds just perfectly."

Normally, the arrival of new nurses at the care facility in Tokyo’s western fringes would be a mere question of personnel. But this time, it represents a fresh step for Japan.

Maria Falqueza, 25, and Olivia Pineda, 30, are among the first Filipinas at nursing facilities in Japan, which has signed a free-trade agreement with the Philippines that broke precedent by allowing workers to come in.

A handful of care support facilities have accepted 15 Filipinos including Falqueza and Pineda as trainees to brace for the full-fledged entry of Filipino nurses to Japan.

After intense negotiations, then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi and President Arroyo signed a deal in September for Japan to accept up to 1,000 care workers and nurses from the Philippines in two years.

The deal is more due to pressure from the Philippines – whose economy relies on remittances from the one-tenth of its population working overseas – than any desire by Japan.

Any changes to immigration policy, like elsewhere in the developed world, are controversial in Japan, but especially so as Asia’s largest economy has strict regulations on foreign workers.

Under the agreement, the care workers are required to learn Japanese and to pass Japanese certification examinations, even if they are already legally qualified in the Philippines.

So every day, Falqueza and Pineda attend four hours of Japanese classes in the morning and then "literally rush to catch a rapid train to the care support facility" which is located some two and a half hours away, Falqueza says.

They work four hours there, and when they go home it is already 9:30 p.m.

Two years later, they hope to get Japanese certification and re-enter with working visas.

"Our colleagues are nice and our elderly customers are kind, often teaching us Japanese customs," says Pineda. "I want to keep working as a caregiver in Japan."

Falqueza nods, adding: "I’d like to have a stable job here, have savings, and enjoy being young."

Despite the political sensitivities, officials say the care support industry faces a daunting shortage of workers in Japan, whose population began to shrink in 2005.

"Every facility is desperate to secure workers, because many workers, especially ones of good quality, are quick to leave due to tough working conditions involving night duties," says Hiromichi Mizuno, the president of a care home in the western city of Osaka.

The average annual salary for caregivers at public facilities funded through the insurance system is 2.2 million yen ($18,800), well below the 3.8 million yen average for salaried workers, according to a government survey.

"Because the economy is recovering, we can’t even compete with McDonald’s in recruiting new workers," Mizuno says.

Solving the chronic shortage of workers boils down either to raising taxes – which would require more public insurance money – and accepting foreigners who are willing to work for less, facility managers say.

Japan’s welfare costs are already snowballing due to its aging society.

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