Asia Short Read

Waking up to ‘death by overwork’

Recent legislation suggests much of Japan is at last waking up to its workers’ growing risk of death from overwork. Precious little is actually changing.

In its great economic miracle between 1960 and 1990, Japan clocked an average GDP growth at over 6% as the rest of the OECD nations mustered an average of just 3.86%. But the numbers didn’t come cheap. Average annual working hours exceeded 2,000, far above 1,828 hours in the US and 1,702 in France.

In 1988, at the height of its ‘bubble years’, a group of doctors and lawyers decided to start telephone hotlines, dedicated to curbing the phenomenon known as ‘karōshi’ – death from overwork. It aimed to offer consultation, and perhaps help with compensation claims. It soon became in high demand. During the summer of 2000, hundreds of workers would be driven to the hotline each day. One lawyer at the National Defence Counsel for Victims of karōshi reckoned that there were around 10,000 phone-ins annually.

But the situation has long been shrouded in secrecy by Japan’s own government. At the time it only acknowledged around 100-200 cases of karōshi per year, despite the actual figure being estimated far higher, perhaps merely due to embarrassment or in fact its narrow definition – for a case to be logged the worker had to surpass 100 hours in the preceding month. Gradually, growing coverage of the epidemic allowed the millions of workers an alternative out of the deadly corporate culture into freelance or part-time careers. The hotline soon became a service almost exclusively for full-time workers, and to an extent the uproar had been silenced.

Nowadays though, part-time workers are at an increasing risk of karōshi. As technology is able to provide more informal work, firms are ridding of their full-time workers for more flexible arrangements, with lower wages and less job security.

In Japan, labour flexibility is a more dangerous prospect than for much of the Western world. As a country with a long-standing culture of overtime work – the first 20-40 hours of which is often put down as ‘service overtime’, i.e. unpaid – workers are left more vulnerable than ever to such abuses. Around 4.5 million have now been forced into second jobs, up 30% in just the last three years.

The reasons behind are surprising. After all, Japan’s low birth rates have left the labour market its tightest for forty years, with almost 1.6 jobs around for each applicant. Workers are in such short supply that manufacturing companies have increasingly turned to automation. Many large chains are now hiring more foreign workers. McDonald’s even resorted to a big advertising campaign asking housewives and retirees to help out at its busiest shifts. The one recruitment strategy that hasn’t budged though is higher wages.

Part is down to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s signature fiscal policy, known as ‘Abenomics’, which involves weakening the Japanese yen to make exports cheaper and increase profits for manufacturers. And in theory, higher corporate profits should have led to higher wages and a rise in consumer spending. But Japan’s corporations have sat on their profits. Each Spring at ‘Shuntō’, the annual wage negotiations event, its major industries have given the unions almost nothing.

It means with lower incomes workers save more, and GDP growth stagnates. A weakening yen also makes imports more expensive, reducing households’ buying power for imported goods. Overall, workers are spending 11% more time to earn the same salary they did 20 years ago – not to mention the often unpaid, unreported overtime.

The decisions to stall wages has seen several high profile cases of karōshi. In 2013 a journalist of the national broadcaster died of a heart failure after working 159 hours of overtime in a single month. In 2015, a young worker at an advertising firm took her own life under similar circumstances.

Attempts at progress have also been all too half-hearted and tokenistic. Legislation is to be put in next year restricting overtime to 45 hours per month in ‘normal’ months, allowing up to 100 hours a month in ‘busy’ periods. But hourly limits, both explicit and sensible, still await. So too do rigid closing hours of offices where all must clear out at, say, 8pm.

Ironically, Japan’s productivity – the lowest of the G7 is held back by the very culture that seeks to improve it. A more forgiving working week would likely bring diversity from some less put-off foreigners. It might encourage many women to not now give up on their career after a pregnancy. Or it could allow couples with better work prospects the chance of more children, easing the effects of an ageing population. After some tinkering, the suggestion of a battle now won lurks in the air. To truly put an end to karōshi, far more must be done – and quick. The war continues.

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