Death by overwork on rise among Japan's vulnerable workers

Sun Apr 3, 2016 6:48am EDT
 
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By Stanley White

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan is witnessing a record number of compensation claims related to death from overwork, or "karoshi", a phenomenon previously associated with the long-suffering "salary man" that is increasingly afflicting young and female employees.

Labor demand, with 1.28 jobs per applicant, is the highest since 1991, which should help Prime Minister Shinzo Abe draw more people into the workforce to counter the effect of a shrinking population, but lax enforcement of labor laws means some businesses are simply squeezing more out of employees, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Claims for compensation for karoshi rose to a record high of 1,456 in the year to end-March 2015, according to labor ministry data, with cases concentrated in healthcare, social services, shipping and construction, which are all facing chronic worker shortages.

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.

"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."

The labor ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Kawahito, a lawyer who has been dealing with karoshi since the 1980s, said 95 percent of his cases used to be middle-aged men in white-collar jobs, but now about 20 percent are women.   Continued...

 
Road workers prepare a construction site at night in central Tokyo November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Peter