As the Abe administration tries to accelerate “work style reform” to address the issue of chronically long working hours, probably in an ultimately negative way, another case of karoshi (過労死) also known as death by overwork, was made public by family members of a victim last month. A 51-year-old sales manager working for Sansei, a mold manufacturing company in the city of Oshu in Iwate Prefecture, passed away after an intracerebral hemorrhage in 2011. The family waited many years before finally deciding to take the case to court. The man had been working up to 111 hours of overtime in a month. Family members of the victim insist that the company should have taken necessary measures to lessen his workload. They held a press conference this month.
The father of two children, the karoshi victim, was hired as an engineer working at the company’s plant in his hometown of Oshu in 1989. After being assigned to sales manager’s position, his daily tasks included sending out invoices and promoting the company’s supplies to potential customers, making several business trips a month. In addition to those tasks, he had to assess the work of his team members to determine their bonuses. He was also asked to organize company sponsored softball games and annual end-of-the-year parties. His workload began to gradually increase and the records his family members were able to collect show he continuously worked 60 to 80 hours of overtime a month since 2002. His son recalls that since he always left home at 7:00am and came home very late at night, sometimes later than 11:00pm. They were able to dine with him just once a week, on Sunday nights.
Even the worker himself became aware of being dangerously overworked. He once told his wife, “I’m working way too much so that if something happens to me, don’t hesitate to sue the company.”
Several months after he collapsed in his home on a Saturday afternoon in front of his family, his wife, certain that it was the work condition that pushed him to die, applied for worker’s compensation which was later accepted by the labor standards inspection office in Hanamaki, Iwate. However, the company insisted it was actually his preexisting health conditions that was the main cause and refused to apologize or compensate for his death. His wife and the two children decided to take the case to civil court. “The government concluded after investigation that this is karoshi but the company decided not to admit. Now, it needs to be held responsible for what it has done to my father,” the son stated. The first hearing is to scheduled to be held in January 2018.
Cases like this are not at all uncommon in Japan. It was 1978 when a doctor specialized in occupational diseases first introduced the term karoshi, literally translated as “death from overwork” in Japanese[i]. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, one in eight (12.6%) full time workers work more than 60 hours per week; the government considers death from overwork becomes a serious possibility if working more than 60 hours a week[ii]. The government finally passed legislation, the act on promotion of karoshi prevention countermeasures, in 2014, amid increasing pressures mainly from a group of karoshi victim family members[iii]. However, the number of karoshi incidents has been held steady. In 2016, 198 cases of suicide karoshi (or karojisatsu) were filed to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in addition to 261 cases of karoshi from brain and heart related disorders[iv]. Experts say this is an extremely conservative figure because many workers and their families simply do not know what to do when their loved ones suddenly pass away. Even if they come to conclude work is the cause, they must find ways to prove victims actually worked excessive overtime. Many companies forge timesheets, ordering to clock in and out on a fixed time everyday, and the rest do not keep track of work hours at all.
“It is extremely difficult for family members to find evidence of overwork. They are not experts of labor law and often those companies hide the evidence or even try to persuade family members not to speak out by offering a small compensation,” Haruki Konno of POSSE, a labor rights organization that has been supporting the family in this case. “There must be so many cases that fly under the radar. We need to support karoshi victim family members or those faced with bad working conditions so that they can to take actions against management.”