What’s to be done about working people to death in Asia?
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What’s to be done about working people to death in Asia?

THE paltry fine levied on Japanese advertising agency Dentsu for its part in the death of employee Yukima Takahashi has highlighted the blight of overwork that affects the world, but is especially prevalent in parts of Asia.

Following a similar death by suicide of one of its workers (Miwa Sado, who died of heart failure in July 2013), a senior official at NHK, Japan’s international news service, was quoted as saying her death was “a problem for our organisation as a whole, including the labour system”.

SEE ALSO: Japan: Dentsu head to quit in January over employee’s ‘death by overwork’

Japan’s work culture has long been renowned for the long hours expected of its salarymen, with the term “karōshi” being used as early as 1978.

“Karōshi” means premature death caused either directly by the punishing physiological effects of working overlong hours, or suicide as the culmination of mental health deterioration caused by the same.

In South Korea, Lee Han-bit, a producer at entertainment organisation CJ E&M, was similarly driven to suicide by the work patterns expected of him. His suicide note read:

“I couldn’t live this way, working over 20 hours a day, sleeping only two to three hours and then going back to work.”

South Korea’s working hours are among the highest in the world, with the working population averaging 53 hours per week on the job, according to a 2016 survey taken by Korean job site Job Korea.

Although hours are limited by law to 40 hours per week per worker in Korea, the expectation to work for long hours is an accepted part of Korean employment.

The Joongang Daily has reported many experiences of young Korean workers, including interview questions suggesting 25-hour shifts and job advertisements welcoming applications from people “who love eating dinner with co-workers”.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Koreans worked an average of 2,113 hours in 2015, the second highest among its 35 member countries.

South Korea had the highest suicide rate in the OECD in 2013, at 28.7 deaths per 100,000 people. Japan was third, at 18.7 deaths. The US was 12th, at 13.1 self-inflicted deaths per 100,000.

Elsewhere in Asia, a survey taken in 2015 of 440 healthcare professionals by the Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia found that 55 percent of the road traffic accidents suffered by healthcare professionals in that country occurred after a shift of 25 to 36 hours.

In Malaysia’s overstretched public health service, doctors reported having to work an additional four to 10 hours in addition to their “standard” 24-hour service, as standard.

What causes overwork?


One of the most common reasons for overwork is that workers think sticking around for longer hours reflects commitment. Source: Shutterstock

There are several hypotheses that attempt to explain the causes of workers being pushed into – or feeling they have to – work long and unhealthy hours.

What may be true for one country, or industry, or employer, may not be true for another, and in all likelihood, a combination of factors in each individual case contribute to the end result.

  • “Work hard, play hard” culture. Perhaps the most common reason is the tendency to want to advance in a company. People are keen to show an increased commitment simply by showing up longer. Despite many studies that show working longer hours does not equate to working more productively, the impetus to arrive before the boss, and leave after him/her, drives many employees to over-committing.
  • Lack of alternative working models on offer. Part-time working, job sharing and employees working from home are still regarded by many employers with suspicion. Employees (usually women) who wish to work untraditional hours, or part-time, because of childcare commitments are often looked down upon professionally, and are passed up for promotion – this is evident in the gender pay gap that is an unfortunate fact of life.
  • Labour market deregulation. Anna Burger’s research for the European Institute showed the weaker the legislative regulations on employers, the greater the tendency for those employees to apply pressure on workers to work longer, stay later and take fewer holidays or time off.
  • The so-called “Veblenian” argument. This states as jobs become more knowledge-intensive, such as those in the IT sector, people actually enjoy being at work more. A sedentary job at a desk does not have the same physical limitations on possible hours as, say, a labouring role, so if the personal incentive to work longer is there, the employee is capable of staying at the workplace for additional hours.

Assuming that a reduction in excessive working hours is held to be a good thing (see above as to why that might not be an unassailable truth), there are several possible steps that can be taken. In exactly the same way the causes of overwork vary and combine in immensely complex ways, so too the solutions may be implemented – it depends on what’s relevant and seen to be useful, case-by-case.

Can government help?

Either through guidelines (carrot) or legislation (stick), central and local government edicts may play a role.

In Japan, Shinzo Abe’s government proposes to cap monthly overtime at 100 hours per worker and introduce penalties for companies that allow employees to exceed this limit – measures that critics say still put workers at risk.

The Japanese government, in its first whitepaper on “Karōshi” released last year, states that one in five Japanese workers are at risk from overwork. Presumably, with their longer working hours and significantly higher suicide rates, South Koreans are at an even higher risk.

SEE ALSO: Japan: 100-hour overtime cap slammed by critics as endorsing ‘karoshi’

At a local government level, action has been taken by individual state organisations: in the local government offices in Toshima, a Tokyo district, the office lights are turned off at 7pm to force people to go home.

Manager Hitoshi Ueno says:

“It’s not just about cutting working hours. We want people to be more efficient and productive so that everyone can protect and enjoy their spare time. We want to change the work environment in total.”

However, the everyday experience of French workers may act as a counterbalance to the arguments of those calling for legislative intervention.

While it is widely lauded among labour campaigners, France’s 35-hour-a-week limit, stipulated in law, is largely ignored in practice, with most companies paying much-needed overtime to their employees, who are needed for longer just to get the job done.

Further headline-grabbing rules, such as the prevention of an employer contacting any employee after 7pm each evening by any means, are also pretty much glossed-over in real life.


Abe’s government is considering capping monthly overtime at 100 hours. Source: Reuters/Toru Hanai

If the protection that can be offered by governments isn’t practical, it seems therefore incumbent on individual organisations to reduce excessive working hours – if that is, the leaders of those organisations can be convinced of the inefficacy of forcing long working shifts of their staff.

Practices won’t change overnight, especially since it is an overall alteration in societal attitudes that will drive effective change. But our attitudes are particularly contradictory on several ingrained levels:

  • If a co-worker goes home early, what is our most common reaction? Are we pleased they’ve worked efficiently and so can clock off before time, satisfied with a job well done? Or are we resentful of the fact we’re still in the workplace?
  • We encourage our children to do their homework. Furthermore, we may even book them into cram classes and holiday revision groups. Once they reach the workplace, however, are we now suddenly changing our advice to encourage workers to clock off promptly, go home and be with their friends and families?
  • While there’s a great deal of evidence showing that working longer is less efficient, we still celebrate the lone entrepreneur working every hour available, and congratulate the executive who gives up his/her weekends to produce vital results.

How comfortable will shorter working hours feel, if the accepted norms are for overwork?

Until we can change our attitudes on every level, stress, illness and even suicide may have to be the acceptable face of workplace “success”.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent