Media  Global Economy  2022.03.29

In Japan, the presence of robots in nursing homes is now growing

Le Monde on March 25th, 2022

This article was initially published in French in Le Monde newspaper on 25. March 2022, as part of a series of monthly columns on Asian economies. The original article can be found here:

Technology/ Innovation Europe

Column by Sébastien Lechevalier, Professor at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris), Senior Researcher at Maison franco-japonaise (UMIFRE 19, Tokyo) and at the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS, Tokyo).

If robotics improves the care of elderly persons, who face a loss of autonomy, it contributes to the degradation of the working conditions of the care staff, observes Sébastien Lechevalier in his column.

Column. The use of robots in Japanese nursing homes contributes to improving the care of elderly people, who face a loss of autonomy, but without eliminating jobs for care staff, while leading to a deterioration in their status and remuneration ("Robots and Labor in the Service Sector: Evidence from Nursing Homes", Karen Eggleston, Yong Suk Lee and Toshiaki Iizuka, National Bureau of Economic Research working paper nº 28322, January 2021).

The specific question posed by the three economists - American, Korean and Japanese respectively - refers to a more general question: will robots replace humans and lead to massive job destruction? The debate is lively among economists, who thus revisit the classic question of the impact of technical progress on employment and work.

In the Japanese context, the issue is quite different, since several sectors are facing labor shortage, notably services for the elderly, in a context of a still very restrictive migration policy and accelerated aging of the population (more than a quarter of the Japanese population is over 65 today), which not only creates new needs for care and services, but also mechanically reduces the supply of labor despite the increase in the retirement age. It is estimated that in 2025 there will be a shortage of more than 380,000 care jobs to meet the needs of the elderly.

The presence of robots in Japanese nursing homes is now growing, although they are concentrated in less than a quarter of the facilities. However, most of these robots are surveillance robots, which can, for example, alert people if they fall. There are also robots that help with mobility or assist caregivers in lifting patients and, in smaller numbers, "social" robots that can interact with patients.

Fewer workers on permanent contracts

The three researchers surveyed 900 nursing homes and more than 150,000 workers during 2017. They find that there has been no decrease in the number of caregiving jobs as a result of robot deployment. Two other findings are noteworthy, however.

First, while the total number of jobs remains stable, the number of temporary and part-time workers is increasing while the number of permanent workers is decreasing, a sign of job flexibilization.

Second, there is a decline in the monthly wages of these workers, due to the decline in the number of hours of on-call duty at night, which are increasingly provided by surveillance robots.

The authors, intent on showing that there is no negative effect on the volume of employment, tend not to question, beyond the observation, these signs of deterioration in the work of care personnel. This is all the more surprising given that the average hourly wage is extremely low, around 7 euros, just above the minimum wage.

"Society 5.0"

Without denying the possible interest of mobilizing robotics or other technologies in the service of care for the elderly, we can therefore question the relevance of making it a priority, in a context of lack of personnel, which is not without echoes with the French situation, in the context of the Orpea scandal.

Wouldn't it be more important to improve the working conditions of care personnel to increase the attractiveness of these professions? Is the deployment of robots really intended to compensate for the lack of manpower, or to improve the sector's performance, or even to find new outlets for the robotics industry in the service sector?

In the Japanese context of the incessant promotion of the "5.0 society" discourse, there would always be technological solutions to social problems...

If technology can be useful, shouldn't we set up an innovation protocol guided above all by the search for the well-being of users and care personnel?