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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

EPAs clearing way for foreign caregivers

Indonesian, Philippine professionals coming to fill labor void but face high linguistic, societal hurdles

Staff writer

Indonesian nurses and care workers are expected to start arriving in Japan this summer under a new bilateral economic partnership agreement, and, under a similar EPA between Tokyo and Manila, such professionals from the Philippines may follow.

News photo
Anatomy of Japan: School administrator Josephine Cerita teaches Filipino students the Japanese names of body parts at the Philippine-Japan Industrial and Cultural-Exchange Foundation in Quezon, north of Manila, in 2004. AP PHOTO

While their pending arrival has been welcomed in some quarters because the entrants are expected to help mitigate staff shortages in the medical and welfare industries, concerns have also been raised.

Under the bilateral agreement signed last August with Jakarta, Japan will accept up to 1,000 professionals in the first two years as "candidates" hoping to be certified by the government.

Indonesian nurses who apply must have two years of professional experience, and care workers need to have graduated from institutions of higher education and be certified by Jakarta, or be nursing school graduates.

After arriving in Japan, they will attend a six-month training course covering the Japanese language and the country's nursing and care-giving practices. They will also be expected to work at hospitals or care facilities, and to take national examinations.

Those who pass the exams can continue to stay and work in Japan. Those who do not, however, will have to return home, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

An agency representing Jakarta and a Japanese organization will accept work applications and match candidates with institutions that seek their services.

Nursing candidates will be able to qualify for a stay of up to three years, while care workers will be able to remain up to four.

A similar arrangement is being considered under the EPA with the Philippines, which is still subject to congressional proceedings in Manila.

Both Indonesia and the Philippines had asked Japan to accept nurses and care workers, health ministry officials said.

During bilateral talks, which started in 2005, Jakarta initially suggested that Tokyo accept nurses and caregivers and exempt them from having to take Japanese national tests, the officials said.

But Tokyo rejected this proposal, arguing such professional caregivers would need to pass the Japanese exam to guarantee a certain level of service, the officials said. Indonesia later accepted this position.

The EPAs guarantee that the Indonesians and Filipinos will receive salaries equivalent to their Japanese counterparts, the officials said.

By accepting foreign professionals, Japanese industries will be able to cope with staff shortages, while the expatriates' home countries will get remittances, noted Shun Ohno, a Kyushu University Asia Center professor specializing in transnational migration.

The Japanese population is aging. Patients and users of medical and welfare facilities are meanwhile increasing.

Aggravating the situation, more young people are shunning the "3-K" jobs, which are "kitsui" (hard), "kitanai" (dirty) and "kiken" (dangerous), resulting in acute staff shortages.

Indonesia and the Philippines have meanwhile not only suffered serious economic slumps, but their current moderate growth is not adequate to enrich their populations, which are swelling with young people whose ranks outnumber job openings, Ohno said.

Both countries are eager to send surplus labor abroad to earn foreign cash, Ohno said.

But when it comes to accepting foreign nurses and caregivers, not everyone in Japan's labor-strapped medical sector is ready to welcome them with open arms.

According to a recent survey of the nation's hospitals carried out by Kyushu University Asia Center, 46 percent said they would welcome foreign nurses, but 20 percent expressed reluctance.

Those willing to accept foreign staff mostly said they are needed "to solve the lack of manpower."

Major reasons cited by the respondents with misgivings include that it would be difficult to provide the necessary support for foreign nurses and that their Japanese proficiency will fall short of acceptable levels.

Some 30 percent of the respondents worry that Japanese patients and their families may not accept foreign nurses. Some fear the language barrier between caregivers and colleagues and patients may also affect the level of service and could result in medical treatment errors.

Ohno, however, believes language will not be a major problem because the candidates will do their best to meet the high requirements to pass the Japanese national exam.

"(The candidates who pass the exam will) have high language proficiency and know the Japanese nursing, care culture and system," Ohno said, discounting concerns that a communication gap might detract from their jobs.

Instead, he predicts care professionals from other countries will also work in Japan in the future, both because their home nations wish to send their workers abroad to earn foreign currency and many Japanese facilities desperately need them.

Now that there are more than 2 million foreign residents in Japan, or nearly 2 percent of the population, the public is gradually feeling less uneasy toward foreigners, Ohno added.

Foreign professionals have already been working in Japan's welfare industry and they are highly appreciated.

Group Home Kakehashi, an care facility for the elderly in Fukuoka Prefecture, has three Philippine female helpers in their 30s and 40s, who care for 18 inhabitants for about a year.

"(They) are lovely, kind, entertaining and caring people. (The three) are absolutely not thought bad" by facility users and their family members, said Kimiko Kakehashi, head of the group home.

"In terms of language, only written kanji are" a hurdle, Kakehashi said, noting even Japanese sometimes have a hard time dealing with Chinese characters.

"Everyone must initially learn difficult technical terms for nursing," she said. "Somehow everyone clears" such hurdles.

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