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Japan News

January 20, 2022
Article by Bobbie van der List

ECJ Japan Correspondent Bobbie van der List meets Hiroshi Horiguchi, Managing Director of the Japan Building Maintenance Association (JBMA) to talk about his main goals. He also looks back on the Olympics held there last year and considers some of the challenges facing the industry there.

Horiguchi greets me with a generous smile, although times have been tough for the cleaning industry, he has to admit. Like most sectors, the cleaning industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, or more accurately – working from home has led to a drastic reduction in cleaning contracts for its member companies.

The Japan Building Maintenance Association (JBMA) is an organization whose main role is to inform its members about new regulations, provide training and seminars to keep abreast of these regulations, and in addition to that, it also tries to influence decision-making within politics. Kingdom.

In total, JBMA represents 2,800 cleaning companies, all of which pay a membership fee. What type of companies do its members belong to? Horiguchi explains, “We have different types of companies, from large companies to small and medium-sized companies. Some companies have a turnover of around 30 billion yen (23 million euros), others 100 million yen (7.7 billion euros). approximately 10,000 companies in the sector.”

Horiguchi continues that his association does not only deal with cleaning per se, part of its work is related to the sanitation sector. “However, almost 100% of our customers are engaged in cleaning management,” he says. What is their service? “We focus on training and qualifying technicians, creating manuals, providing updated maintenance rules, new cleaning methods, but also new products, such as detergents.”

Asked about the main challenges, he says that due to the pandemic, the work of cleaners has become much more difficult. One of the things he is trying to change is deregulation, to make it easier to deal with the new Covid-19 rules. “There is a new building sanitation law that requires us to take into account the effects of Covid-19 in terms of temperature, humidity and air purity. And we also have to check, or we need some technicians to check the maintenance system. For these people to operate more smoothly, we need to deregulate some regulations for technicians. This is something we have been pushing for. And it is also something for which we train them.

What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the sector? “It’s a difficult story,” replies Horiguchi. “We need building management and cleaning in offices, malls and hospitals, but that has changed due to the pandemic and working from home.

“A year ago we didn’t have contracts in the hospitals. The nurses were doing the cleaning, but the hospitals were overwhelmed, there was no room for cleaning. That’s why the hospitals started specifying cleaning through us, so we had to implement a new technician qualification, which is called Infection Control Cleanliness (ICC).”

Some offices are still asking workers to work from home, which has impacted JBMA members. “It has automatically reduced the industry. We don’t have data, but we did a member survey to ask how things have changed since the pandemic. They are trying very hard to keep work and avoid layoffs. But we don’t have exact numbers.”

Most companies, he says, don’t have permanent staff – they hire part-timers or students. “By reducing their working hours, they managed to survive, although many irregular workers left the industry voluntarily.”

There are other issues to deal with, says Horiguchi. One of them is discrimination, an often-cited problem in Japan for people who have been in close contact with infected people. “If staff were engaged in cleaning in hospitals, they could be discriminated against and the family would be concerned. But fortunately cleaning companies work hard to protect the safety of their staff.”

A far bigger concern is the general lack of workers in the cleaning industry, a problem that existed before the pandemic. Although the Japanese government relaxed immigration rules several years ago – allowing industries struggling with labor shortages like cleaning to attract foreign staff – thanks to the continued closure of borders, it has become more difficult to bring foreign workers to Japan.

“Before the pandemic, the lack of manpower was a very serious problem because fewer people want to come to our industry,” Horiguchi said. “Some of the members of our association, for example, try to attract foreign workers by providing a work visa. Basically, Japan hardly accepts any immigrants and many industries are struggling because of this attitude – construction, nursing and building maintenance to name a few. For these industries, Japan should encourage foreign workers by providing work visas.” Unless foreigners obtain the correct qualifications, they cannot enter Japan.

At the beginning of November, the Japanese government decided to partially lift border restrictions for people who intend to come to work in Japan, a sign that things could slowly return to normal and hopefully a solution for the cleaning industry as well.

Is Horiguchi lobbying the government to open its borders? “Actually, we don’t do lobby work, but when we know that the government is starting discussions on a new system, we show our intention to join this system and we push politicians to move forward.”

To indicate the importance of foreign labor, Horiguchi is keen to highlight the important role these workers played in the Olympics last summer. “Foreign cleaners were responsible for the housekeeping of the Olympic Village in Tokyo, and we received a lot of positive feedback from the cleaners as well as the athletes,” he said.

Regarding the Mainichi Shinbun article, where the organization of the Olympics and the cleaning companies were accused of not taking good care of the cleaners there, he raises an eyebrow. “I read the report too, I think this article may be accurate but the intent is not so clear. I asked the author to come to the office to speak in person about what we let’s do exactly, to help him understand.”

Horiguchi says he thinks this is an exception. “We invited the author of the article that criticized the cleanup operation to discuss the situation but he refused to meet with us,” Horiguchi says of the reporter who first raised the issue.