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6 October 2017updated 07 Aug 2021 8:26pm

The woman who died from overwork and the perils of a low-regulation economy

Miwa Sado, 31, died after logging 159 hours of overtime in a month.

By Stephen Bevan

Two features of the UK labour market that threaten our post-Brexit prosperity are stagnant real wage growth and historically low levels of labour productivity. Once we are released from the regulatory “yoke” of Brussels, it is argued, the animal spirits latent in the UK economy will be liberated to drive economic growth and improve living standards for all.

Even Emmanuel Macron, in notoriously over-regulated France, has decided that loosening employment protection is one way to improve labour market flexibility. His moves are being resisted by French unions, on the grounds that employers will exploit these freedoms to the detriment of workers.

In other circumstances, the recent news of the sad death of 31-year-old journalist Miwa Sado in Tokyo in 2013 through “overwork” might have passed without comment here in the West (the case has come to prominence now after labour inspectors ruled overwork was the cause).

But many UK commentators point to the longer hours worked by US employees, and those in the so-called “Tiger” economies in Asia, as examples of practices which go hand in hand with high-octane productivity and GDP growth.

Karōshi, literally meaning “overwork death” in Japanese, is a sudden work-related fatality, usually from heart attack or stroke due to stress, and a starvation diet. This phenomenon is also widespread in South Korea, where it is referred as gwarosa. Sado logged 159 hours of overtime in the month before she died and, once again, the spotlight is falling on the regulatory environment and culture which allows workers to literally drop dead from exhaustion.

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Working very long hours is more common in the Far East than in Europe. For example, in 2013 the proportion of the workforce doing more than 50 hours a week was 23 per cent in Japan, 34 per cent in Hong Kong and 35 per cent in South Korea. In comparison, the 2015 data for the UK shows that only 11 per cent work more than 50 hours, a drop from the 16 per cent figure in 1995.

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In Japan, recent data shows that the long hours culture is deeply embedded. A quarter of firms have employees working more than 80 hours of overtime a month, and 12 per cent have staff working more than 100 hours of overtime. To make matters worse, while Japanese workers are entitled to 20 days of annual leave, 35 per cent take none.

Karōshi is not a new phenomenon. Between 1988 and 2013, there were 29,598 applications for workers’ compensation due to overwork, mostly from men. It is estimated that, in 2014, there were between 300 and 400 deaths attributable to excessive hours in Japan.

In the past, the “upside” of working long hours was job security and, in many cases, a genuine “job for life”. Today, with job insecurity a much greater feature of employment for Japanese workers, the pressure to work excessive and unhealthy hours has, if anything, intensified.

Labour relations in Japan have historically been defined more by the requirements of status than rights – as in the West. There has always been an obligation of the powerful (employers) to protect the weak (employees), who, in turn, have the right to expect benevolence in unequal status relationships. This is a paternalistic approach which, in the case of karōshi at least, has not lent itself to effective labour regulation.

In 2014 the Karōshi Prevention Countermeasures Promotion Law was passed, and since 2015 all firms employing more than 50 staff have been required by law to conduct annual stress audits. But compliance is not widely enforced.

Do we live to work or work to live? This is the kind of rhetorical question that those of us researching the role that work plays in our lives are prone to ask occasionally. Karōshi is, of course, at the extreme end of the harm that work can do to us. Nonetheless, those in the UK urging a further bonfire of labour regulations should, perhaps, be careful what they wish for.

Stephen Bevan is the head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies

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