No. 52E(July 2013)
Tokyo, 102-0093 Japan
The Japan Institute of Labour Movement (Rodo-Soken)fs Rodo-Soken Quarterly (Spring 2013, No. 90) carries articles featuring the issue of karoshi, which is now an increasingly serious social problem. These articles, which call for the elimination of mental health disorder and karoshi, reveal some important aspects of karoshi in present-day Japan.
Karoshi is work-related deaths triggered by illnesses caused by fatigue accumulated through excessive workloads (overwork) and excessive work-related psychological loads that induce brain damage or cardiac dysfunction (leading to suicide caused by overwork), and mental disorder (leading to suicide).
Japan does not have accurate data on karoshi. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfarefs report on compensation for work-related accidents provides the number of families that claimed workersf compensation at the Labor Standards Bureau because their loved ones had died from overwork. It also gives the number of cases approved as work related. A survey for FY 2011(April 2011-March 2012) found that there were 202 claims for workersf compensation for work-related suicides including suicide attempts caused by mental disorder and that 176 cases were recognized as work-related. In addition, 248 out of 302 claims for compensation for deaths from brain or heart disease were approved. However, these figures represent just the tip of the iceberg of increasing deaths from overwork.
A National Police Agency report shows that suicides prompted by problems in the workplace are on the increase. The number reached 2,689 in 2011. But the number of claim for workersf compensation accounted for only 20 percent of them. There were 3,365 people who killed themselves for health reasons. It is believed that many of them were cases derived from long work hours and excessively heavy work load.
All this shows that deaths and suicides from overwork are a serious social problem, which cannot be correctly grasped only based on data on workersf compensation claims and their approval.
Why is it difficult to grasp the cases of suicides from overwork? One reason is that standards used to determine whether a workerfs suicide or mental illness is from overwork is mostly based on data on work time. Regarding the issue of karo jisatsu (suicide from overwork), a claim for workersf compensation is unlikely to be approved if the workerfs work time was confirmed to be fewer than 80 hours a month. Suicide from overwork that caused mental disorder will be approved only if the number of hours of overtime work exceeded 100 in a month. Another problem is that the family of a worker who died or committed suicide must prove that the death was related with excessively long working hours and work load. If the labor standards inspection office did not recognize that the death was related to overwork, the workerfs family may ask a court to order the employer to retract the disapproval of the claim. But in most cases, the company withholds any documents that show the excessively long work time and heavy work load and even orders the employees to keep silent on the working conditions there and discourage them from doing anything to help plaintiffs win a court order to certify that the death was work related. This is how companies always try to cover up the truth of the working condition.
Behind deaths/suicides from overwork are health problems exacerbated by labor practices disregarding the 8-hour work day, including forced overtime work, unpaid overtime work, excessively long working hours, and low rates of paid holiday consumption. In Japan, employers can legally have employees work as long as they want if they concluded a labor agreement to that effect. For example, at Toyota Motors, the labor agreement provides that the company can have employees do overtime work up to 540 hours per year.
According to Japanfs official data on working hours, which are available from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministryfs monthly survey, the average Japanese worked 1,728 hours in 2011, down 81 hours from 2011. But it is important to note that the reduction was due to an increasing use of part timers and other contingent workers, who work shorter hours. In fact, yearly working hours of the average regular full-time workers were not shortened. The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry conducts a survey on social life every five years. Each respondent is asked to record every 15 minutes his/her activity of the day. The latest survey shows that the average regular full-time worker worked 2,634.1 hours in 2011. The yearly working hours were almost unchanged from the 1980s.
Another factor behind the worsening health problems is a drastic change taking place in employee management. Companies analyze the various aspects of employees to encourage them to compete with each other. They are replacing regular full-time employees with casual workers. This has been made possible by an adverse revision of the Labor Standards Act to introduce an employment system based on an individual contract, an adverse revision of the Worker Dispatch Law, and various other labor related measures to allow companies to broadly use temporary agency workers. At the same time, regular full-time workers are forced to work under performance-based management. Companies are so high handed as to demand employees accept lower wages and cutbacks in the working conditions and to even impose harsh workloads on workers in order to drive them into accepting excessively heavy workloads and excessively long working hours.
Worse still, the number of power harassment cases is increasing. Workers are driven into achieving their quota with a kind of dismissal.
With power harassment becoming a social problem, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry defined workplace power harassment as any kind of behavior in which a superior takes advantage of his or her position in the workplace to cause co-workers physical pain or emotional distress, whether the person is superior by means of relative work position, physical size, or otherwise. Power harassment includes actions of a supervisor toward a subordinate, interactions between equal colleagues, and the actions of a subordinate toward a supervisor.
In fiscal 2012 (beginning April 1, 2012), the Ministry had to conduct a survey on power harassment in the workplace, reflecting the worsening situation.
In order to eliminate karoshi, it is essential to establish a sound workplace, which calls for the realization of gdecent workh called for by the ILO. Rodo-Soken has compiled a set of policy proposals and published them in a book entitled gProposals for Realizing Decent Work ? a strategy in opposition to runaway neo-liberalism.h In this book, Rodo-soken proposes measures essential for eliminating karoshi, including: secure sufficient workforce; regulations on work time to eliminate excessively long working hours (permitting overtime work up to 2 hours a day, 5 hours a week, 20 hours a month and 120 hours a year, with 1? times the workerfs regular rate and 100 percent extra pay for night or holiday work, and at least 12 hours of interval required between work shifts), and establish rules that must be observed in a society in which regular employment is regarded as a matter of course (including the establishment of a rule that contingent employment must be only in exceptional cases.
*Proposal for the 2012 Spring Struggle: Wage increase and improvement in conditions of employment that will help overcome the economic recession caused by excessively strong yen and deflation, by using just 3.94 percent of corporate internal reserves. (January 19, 2012)
*Estimation: If the consumption tax is increased to 10 percent (from the present 5 percent), Japanfs GDP will fall by 2.5 percent and more than 1,000,000 jobs will be lost (February 20, 2012)
*Report: gRaising the minimum wage is a first step toward the revitalization of the Japanese economyh (May 24, 2012)
*Proposal for the 2013 Spring Struggle: gWage increase and improvement in job market should be the way to pull the nation out of deflation ? We propose restructuring the export-heavy economic foundation into one of boosting domestic demand. (December 26, 2012)
*Proposal for defending the Japanese economy and peoplefs livelihoods from large-scale corporate restructuring in the electronics industry (January 30, 2013)
*Proposal: Efforts toward decent work-a strategy to stop the recklessness of neo-liberal policies (April 25, 2013)
Japan Research Institute of Labour Movement
Rodo-Soken is a labor think tank that carries out research and studies on labor-related issues in cooperation with the National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren), the national trade union center representing the class interests of the Japanese workers, in order to help advance the Japanese trade union movement, theoretically as well as practically, in response to the needs of the movement.