Monday, August 01, 2016

Worked to death

Japanese people are 'dying from overwork' by putting in more than 60 hours a week. 'Karoshi' – either from a fatal heart attack or stroke, or a suicide triggered by overwork – is now a recognised cause of death. Every year, hundreds, maybe thousands, of Japanese people literally work themselves to death. Japan has a working culture where spending long hours at the grindstone, or in compulsory social situations with superiors after work, is the norm.

A year ago in July, the 34-year-old killed himself after working crazy hours – 90 hours a week during the last weeks of his life – at a company that does maintenance at apartment buildings. "His colleagues told me that they were amazed how much he worked," his father, Kiyoshi Serizawa, said in an interview. Kiyotaka Serizawa was a supervisor responsible for overseeing building janitors in three separate locations north-east of Tokyo. Struggling to keep up, Kiyotaka had tried to resign a year before his death, but his boss refused to accept his notice. Apparently concerned about inconveniencing his subordinates, he carried on working.

In the 1970s, when wages were relatively low and employees wanted to maximise their earnings. It continued through the boom years of the 1980s. And it remained after the bubble burst in the late 1990s, when companies began restructuring and employees stayed at work to try to ensure they weren't laid off. Still, irregular workers – who worked without benefits or job security – were brought in, making the regular workers toil even harder. Now, no one blinks an eyelid at 12-hour-plus days. While the basic workweek is 40 hours, many workers don't put in extra hours for fear of being given a bad performance evaluation. This has led to the concept of "service overtime" – "service" being Japanese for "free".  Most Japanese workers get 20 days leave a year, but few take even half of that because of a working culture in which taking days off is seen as a sign of slacking or lack of commitment to the job.

"In a Japanese workplace, overtime work is always there. It's almost as if it is part of scheduled working hours," said Koji Morioka, an emeritus professor at Kansai University who is on a committee of experts advising the government on ways to combat karoshi. "It's not forced by anyone, but workers feel it like it's compulsory. It's impossible to get rid of karoshi alone," he said. "We need to change the overtime culture and create the time for family and hobbies. Long working hours are the root of all evil in Japan. People are so busy they don't even have the time to complain."

The karoshi problem is exacerbated by the relative weakness of labour unions, which have been primarily concerned with raising wages rather than shortening working hours.

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