SPEAKING FREELY Japan tackles the karoshi taboo
By Scott North and Rika Morioka
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Japan's karoshi (death from overwork) problem is finally getting the attention it deserves. Thanks to a determined group of activists, who have worked tirelessly for more than 30 years to combat excessive work hours, a bill that aims to stop karoshi is about to be introduced in the Diet (parliament).
Starting in the late 1970s, these activists identified the karoshi problem and then sought recognition and compensation from the
state for workers' compensation claims for death or disability related to overwork. If they were turned away by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare they often found remedy in the courts.
The cases subsequently became the basis for propaganda and educational outreach. The resulting books, newspaper articles, and symposia succeeded in raising workers' consciousness about work practices, health, and labor law, and the karoshi hotlines and pro bono work of the lawyers recruited new cases, giving workers and their families access to the judicial system.
As the number of recognized and compensated claims of karoshi increased, the anti-karoshi campaign convinced the government and Japanese society that death and damage from overwork is both real and common, making the case that workplace practices of dubious legality are most often the proximate cause.
From the findings of its own investigations, as well as the rulings of the courts, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare was eventually compelled to include karoshi in its annual tallies of labor statistics. [Editor's note: an International Labour Organization case study, Karoshi: Death from overwork, published on April 23, 2013, presents some data.] On this statistical basis, the ministry issued revised standards for recognizing and compensating overwork-related disease claims, and began stepped up enforcement of work time regulations.
In 2012-2013, karoshi activists conducted a nationwide drive and collected more than half-a million signatures on a petition to bring a Basic Law for Karoshi Prevention before the Diet. Dozens of city councils and prefectural assemblies issued statements in support of the proposed legislation and, after intense lobbying by the association of victims' families and their lawyers, both the ruling and opposition parties have agreed on a draft law what will be submitted to the Diet in mid-May 2014.
However, introducing legislation is no more than a first step. And, as karoshi becomes a legitimate object of state regulation, the activists may lose some control over the issue. Will their decision to use the legislative system and play the game the by the rules bring about positive change?
It is easy to imagine karoshi legislation and enforcement becoming mired in legislative and bureaucratic processes, which tend to favor maintenance of the status quo. Nothing is more fundamental to capitalism than employer control over the pace of production and the length of the working day. When the law to prevent karoshi is enacted, will it be able to defend workers against employers' traditional authority and determination to retain the power to define working conditions, hours, and relations with labor?
Despite broad-based support for curbing overwork in the Diet and among the general public, the draft law to prevent karoshi says nothing about limiting work hours or working practices. Instead, the draft law relies on moral suasion, calling upon the government to make karoshi prevention a "duty".
In practice, this will mean conducting studies of the phenomena to ascertain its "actual conditions"; educating the population; providing consultation opportunities for workers and their families; and supporting civil society groups working on the issue. The legislation is silent about punishing employers where long hours or karoshi occur. The bill does not mention limiting work hours, nor does it recommend stronger enforcement of existing work hours regulations.
Such practical flaws are common to laws of this type in Japan. Like the Basic Law for Gender Equal Society, passing a Basic Law for Karoshi Prevention is less a solution to a social problem than official recognition that the problem exists. Once recognized, it cannot be ignored, although there is no guarantee of fast action.
Meanwhile, the real issue, be it gender discrimination or overwork, may continue. Given this disappointing reality, should the activists have taken the legislative route? They probably had no other choice. To win support requires working within the system to achieve validation by Japanese authorities.
Indeed, a key issue is the government calculation of work hours statistics, which are the basis for normative conceptions of working life. Although no one in Japan - or anywhere else - lives by the week or the month or the year, the most common work hours statistics are weekly, monthly or yearly averages. Annual tallies of working hours or monthly quotas for overtime are only good as measures for international or inter-firm comparisons.
These averages ignore heterogeneity in individual daily hours of work (and commuting) and often lump together full and part-time workers. Weekly, monthly and yearly average working hours are at odds with living one day at a time and within each day having time for personal pursuits, raising families, and community participation. Karoshi symbolizes how overwork thwarts accomplishing basic reproductive tasks.
Moreover, the cause for alarm is not just that people die due to overwork, it is that so many work the same way as those who die from overwork. That, at least, is clear from the averages: about 20% of younger Japanese men are working 60 or more hours per week, or 80 hours of overtime per month, the level known as the "karoshi line". The most common defense offered by employers in karoshi cases is that others did the same work or worked in the same way as the deceased.
Survey research into work hours sufferers from reliance on these monthly or yearly estimates of average work hours contributed voluntarily by firms, rather than daily accounts submitted by workers. The former seem objective, but the responses can be manipulated, and response rates can be low - the worst offenders do not reply.
Ministry regulations and guidelines for overtime work (a maximum of 45 hours per month or 360 hours per year) give preference to employer needs for flexible deployment of labor rather than inflexible worker needs for daily leisure.
Higher overtime premiums, which should reduce the use of overtime, are required only when monthly overtime exceeds 60 hours, a figure that is uncomfortably close the 80 hours that constitutes the Ministry's recognized "karoshi line". The ministry admits that fear of losing the cooperation of companies in its surveys is one reason it is not more assertive in enforcement and in publicizing the names of companies where karoshi occurs.
So there is cause for modest celebration: the Diet will soon take up the issue of karoshi, and the long struggle of the victims and their families and supporters will be validated, just as the agony of victims in Japan's famous pollution cases was eventually found to be the responsibility of corporations and the state.
At the same time, there are disturbing continuities in the very long periods of time required to achieve this outcome. The final form of the karoshi legislation will be hammered out in coming weeks, and may turn out to be even less substantive than described here. Moreover, voices demanding further deregulation of labor law and practice grow ever louder under the Abe government's quest for increased productivity, efficiency and flexibility.
Passing the Basic Law for Karoshi Prevention, whatever shortcomings it may have, is evidence that interest in workers' rights issues is growing in Japan. The coming worker shortage may further strengthen the position of labor.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Scott North is Professor of Sociology at Osaka University. Rika Morioka, PhD, is a medical sociologist and public health specialist at present working in South East Asia.