Japan: Death From Overwork on the Rise

Written by BCCJ
April 4, 2016

Written by BCCJ
April 4, 2016

Reuters reports:

Death from overwork is a well-known phenomenon in Japan named as karoshi. Claims for compensation for these tragic deaths rose to a record high of 1,456 in the year to end-March 2015.

Japan has no legal limits on working hours and according to Reuters, “businesses are simply squeezing more out of employees, sometimes with tragic consequences.” Karoshi has become more widespread among those Japanese employees who do not have a permanent, but only a temporary or non-standard contract.

The labor ministry recognizes two types of karoshi: death from cardiovascular illness linked to overwork, and suicide following work-related mental stress.

A cardiovascular death is likely to be considered karoshi if an employee worked 100 hours of overtime in the month beforehand, or 80 hours of overtime in two or more consecutive months in the previous six.

A suicide could qualify if it follows an individual’s working 160 hours or more of overtime in one month or more than 100 hours of overtime for three consecutive months.

Work-related suicides are up 45 percent in the past four years among those 29 and younger, and up 39 percent among women, labor ministry data show.

Claims for karoshi compensation rose to a record high of 1,456 in the year to end-March 2015, according to labor ministry data. Hiroshi Kawahito, secretary general of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of  karoshi said the real number was probably 10 times higher, as the government is reluctant to recognize such incidents.

Reuters reported that the tragic phenomenon of death from overwork has become more acute since the Japanese government relaxed labor regulations. In 2015, non-regular (meaning no permanent contracts) employees made up 38 percent of the workforce, up from 20 percent in 1990.

Lawyers and academics say that some employers are taking advantage of these regulations, advertising a full-time position with reasonable working hours, but later offering the successful applicant a non-regular contract with longer hours, sometimes overnight or weekends, with no overtime pay. The applicant is then promised a regular contract after six months.

Emiko Teranishi, head of the Families Dealing with Karoshi support group, said she hears lots of complaints about hiring tactics, with some companies telling new hires that their salary includes 80 hours of overtime, and they must reimburse the company if they work less.

“Some people don’t even make minimum wage under this system,” said Teranishi, whose own husband committed suicide after working long hours.

Hirokazu Ouchi, a professor at Chukyo University, who wrote a book about the tragic phenomenon told Reuters: “Companies will hire someone for two to three years, but they have no intention of investing the time or the money to nurture that employee.”

Source: Reuters, Stanley White, 3 Apr 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-economy-overwork-idUSKCN0X000F