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Japan Tries to Prevent Overwork Deaths

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The Diet, Japan's parliament, enacted on Friday legislation requiring the government to take measures to prevent deaths from overwork. The legislation, which was submitted by a cross-party lawmaker group, was approved at the day's plenary meeting of the House of Councillors, the upper chamber. It has already passed the House of Representatives, the lower chamber. The law stipulates the government's responsibility to realize a society without death and suicide from overwork by showing the public the true depth of the problem and taking measures accordingly. Has Japan achieved industrial success at the expense of its workers' health? Is such ill-health "contagious"? Virginia Tech management professor Richard Wokutch reports that "karoshi," or "death due to overwork," is one of the most controversial health issue in Japan. And there is an indication that Japanese companies may be exporting stressful work conditions to their overseas operations.

Many Japanese will be prepared to work unpaid overtime to an extreme extent particularly as their young co-workers will often quit when a job is too strenuous. In some cases it has been proven that firms were aware of the poor health of an employee. Meanwhile, death-by-overwork lawsuits have been on the rise in Japan,[citation needed] with the deceased person's relatives demanding compensation payments. However, before compensation can be awarded, the labour inspection office must acknowledge that the death was work-related. As this may take many years in detailed and time-consuming judicial hearings, many do not demand payment. Karōshi Karōshi (過労死), which can be translated literally from Japanese as "death from overwork", is occupational sudden death. Although this category has a significant count, Japan is one of the few countries that reports it in the statistics as a separate category. The major medical causes of karōshi deaths are heart attack and stroke due to stress.

The first case of karōshi was reported in 1969 with the death from a stroke of a 29-year-old male worker in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper company. It was not until the later part of the 1980s, during the Bubble Economy, however, when several high-ranking business executives who were still in their prime years suddenly died without any previous sign of illness, that the media began picking up on what appeared to be a new phenomenon. This new phenomenon was quickly labeled karōshi and was immediately seen as a new and serious menace for people in the work force. In 1987, as public concern increased, the Japanese Ministry of Labour began to publish statistics on karōshi. Japan's rise from the devastation of World War II to economic prominence in the post-war decades has been regarded as the trigger for what has been called a new epidemic. It was recognized that employees cannot work for twelve or more hours a day, six or seven days a week, year after year, without suffering physically as well as mentally.

A recent measurement found that a Japanese worker has approximately two hours overtime a day on average. It is common for the overtime to go unpaid.

ILO has an article about “karoshi”, which means death by overwork. In the article, it mentions four typical cases would cause karoshi following below:

– Mr A worked at a major snack food processing company for as long as 110 hours a week (not a month) and died from heart attack at the age of 34. His death was approved as work-related by the Labour Standards Office.

– Mr B, a bus driver, whose death was also approved as work-related, worked more than 3,000 hours a year. He did not have a day off in the 15 days before he had stroke at the age of 37.

– Mr C worked in a large printing company in Tokyo for 4,320 hours a year including night work and died from stroke at the age of 58. His widow received a workers’ compensation 14 years after her husband’s death.

– Ms D, a 22 year-old nurse, died from a heart attack after 34 hours’ continuous duty five times a month. Not only physical pressure, but also mental stress from working place or conditions would cause karoshi. People who suicide themselves by mental stress called “karojisatsu.”

ILO also lists some causes of overwork or occupational stress including the following:

– All-night, late-night or holiday work, both long and excessive hours. During the long-term economic recession after the collapse of the bubble economy in 1980s and 1990s, many companies reduced the number of employees.

The total amount of work, however, did not decrease, forcing each employee to work harder.

– Stress accumulated due to frustration at not being able to achieve the goals set by the company. Even in an economic recession, companies tended to demand excessive sales efforts from their employees and require them to achieve better results. This increased the psychological burden placed on the employees at work. – Forced resignation, dismissal and bullying. For example, employees who have worked for a company for many years and believed that they are loyal to the company, were suddenly asked to resign because of the need for staff cutbacks.

– The suffering of middle management. They were often in a position to lay off workers and in a dilemma between the corporate restructuring policy and protecting their staff.

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