According to a report from the Thomson Reuters news agency, Japan is witnessing a record number of compensation claims related to death from overwork. Known as “karoshi,” this phenomenon was formerly associated with “salary men,” but today increasingly afflicts young and female employees.
While unemployment has dropped somewhat in recent years in Japan, the country has no legal limits on working hours. Poor enforcement of labour standards allows businesses to squeeze more work out of employees, sometimes with tragic consequences. Claims for compensation for karoshi rose to a record 1,456 in the year ending March 2015, according to labour ministry data. Many cases are concentrated in healthcare, social services, shipping and construction sectors.
The real number may be 10 times higher, says Hiroshi Kawahito, secretary general of the National Defense Counsel for Victims of karoshi, since the government is reluctant to recognize such incidents.
“The government hosts a lot of symposiums and makes posters about the problem, but this is propaganda,” he said. “The real problem is reducing working hours, and the government is not doing enough.”
Kawahito, a lawyer who has been dealing with karoshi since the 1980s, said 95 per cent of his cases used to be middle-aged men in white-collar jobs, but now about 20 per cent are women.
The labour 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 per cent in the past four years among those 29 and younger, and up 39 per cent among women, labour ministry data show.
The problem has become more acute as Japan’s workforce shifts from regular employment patterns into the “precariat” category, those on temporary or non-standard contracts, frequently women and younger people. In 2015 non-regular employees made up 38 per cent of the workforce, up from 20 per cent in 1990, and 68 per cent of them were women.
Many employers advertise full-time positions with reasonable pay and hours, but later offer the successful applicant a non-regular contract with longer hours, sometimes overnight or weekends, with no overtime pay. Refusing overtime pay and break time are illegal, and the applicant could refuse the job, but companies often tell workers they will be given regular contracts after six months or so. Young applicants often accept due to lack of experience, along with some women trying to re-enter the workforce after childbirth.
Emiko Teranishi, head of the Families Dealing with Karoshi support group, hears many complaints about hiring tactics. Some companies tell new hires that their salary includes 80 hours of overtime, and they must reimburse the company if they work less. Some workers 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, wrote a book last year about such companies when he realized some of his students were being treated illegally at their part-time jobs
“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,” said Ouchi, adding that the labour ministry lacked the manpower to follow up on complaints.
Japan’s working-age population has been falling since the mid-1990s, which would normally lead companies to improve working conditions to attract workers, but Ouchi said this is not happening because they can get away with bending the rules.
“This is a way for companies to keep labour costs down, but it is also a path that leads to death by overwork,” he said.