Photo/IllutrationA care giver spoon-feeds an elderly person in Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A disturbingly large number of nursing-care workers in Japan have become victims of sexual and other harassment by service users or their families.

The government decided to conduct its first survey to grasp the reality of harassment against care workers. The problem has long been known but only recently started drawing broad public attention.

The administration plans to develop by March next year a manual to prevent harassment against care workers and deal with actual cases.

It should work with municipal governments, which are responsible for the actual operations of the public nursing-care insurance program, to swiftly develop and implement effective measures to tackle the serious problem.

Before the government’s action, the Nippon Careservice Craft Union for nursing-care industry staff conducted a survey of the situation and recently released its findings.

Of the around 2,400 union members who responded to the survey, 74 percent said they had been harassed in some form while carrying out their duties. Of these victims, 94 percent suffered “power harassment,” which usually means workplace bullying but also refers to abusive behavior against people in weaker positions. Forty percent of all victims said they were sexually harassed.

The union’s 66-page report on harassment against care workers is filled with distressing details.

In one case, a female care worker was taken into the bedroom by the son of the care recipient and groped. In another, the victim was hugged from behind while cooking. One care worker suffered verbal abuse--“You’re only a care worker''--was hit by an object and was groped.

Many victims said their plight did not improve even after they discussed the problem with their superiors or colleagues.

Some respondents said the job requires endurance. Others argued that being harassed is simply part of the job.

Nursing-care workers must often work in a closed environment, including the care recipients’ homes or private wards in nursing-care facilities.

Their various tasks can involve body contact, such as helping users rise from their beds, take a bath, use the bathroom and change their clothes.

Nursing-care workers not only have to deal with this special work situation but also face difficulties in discussing their experiences with others.

Are there any effective ways to deal with the problem under such circumstances?

Under the health and welfare ministry’s guidelines for nursing-care services provided under the public nursing-care insurance program, service providers cannot refuse requests for services unless there is “a good reason” to do so.

The union is urging the government to recognize harassment as “a good reason” for refusing to provide services.

This argument is worth serious attention. It is also important to secure necessary human and financial resources to ensure that services can be provided by two or more care workers to avoid situations in which one worker must handle tasks alone.

Indecent behavior could be a result of the care recipients’ dementia or other health problems. Service providers need to effectively stress the importance of protecting workers from harassment to the recipients and their families.

Use of equipment such as nursing-care robots and monitoring cameras can also help to ease the problem.

It is also necessary to raise the wages of caregivers to improve the social status of their profession.

Nursing-care workers, of course, do not have to endure harassment of any kind. Instead of resigning themselves to the reality, they should seek advice from people around them on how to deal with the situation.

Before long, one-third of Japan’s population will be 65 years old or older.

Unless the working environment for care workers is improved significantly, the vital system of nursing-care services will become unsustainable.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Aug. 30