Working to death in Japan: health warning over 'no overtime' law

Tokyo (AFP) - Japan's push to take away overtime from high-paid workers has critics warning it will aggravate a problem synonymous with the country's notoriously long working hours -- karoshi, or death from overwork.

Teruyuki Yamashita knows the risks all too well. The now 53-year-old worked day and night in a senior sales job, made countless overseas business trips, and slept an average of just three hours a night.

Six years ago, his frantic work pace took a near fatal turn after he collapsed from a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a type of brain bleeding, leading to three weeks in intensive care -- and the loss of his sight.

"I told a nurse that it was dark -- I didn't realise that I was blind," Yamashita said, recalling when he woke up in hospital.

Hundreds of deaths related to overwork -- from strokes, heart attacks and suicide -- are reported every year in Japan, along with a host of serious health problems, sparking lawsuits and calls to tackle the problem.

But, last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet approved a bill to exempt white-collar employees earning over 10.75 million yen ($88,000) a year, such as financial dealers and consultants, from work-hour rules.

His ruling Liberal Democratic Party hopes to get parliamentary approval during the current session.

Advocates, including Japan's biggest business lobby Keidanren, say the changes would reward productive workers with pay based on merit -- rather than just working hours -- and give them more flexibility in terms of how long they spend at the office.

If they get the job done quickly, they could leave early or come in later, they say.

Backers also say the reforms would not force change on workers, but rather let them choose to enter such an agreement with their employers.

- 'Accelerate deaths' -

Critics charge it would be tough for employees to refuse an offer of switching to the new model, and deride it as the "no overtime pay bill" that would force people to work longer with no extra pay beyond their agreed salary.

That could increase the number of overwork-related deaths and health problems, said Koji Morioka, professor emeritus at Kwansei Gakuin University.

"The government wants to create a system in which companies don't have to pay for overtime -- it could accelerate deaths from overwork," he said.

Morioka added that the bill seemed to run counter to the spirit of a law passed last summer aimed at preventing deaths from long working hours, which garnered wide support across party lines. Details of the bill are being worked out now.

The new law, if passed, would initially affect just four percent of private-sector employees, or about 1.8 million people.

But Keidanren already wants to expand the programme by lowering the pay threshold.

"We need to think about relaxing the income requirement and applying it to a wider scope of workers," the business lobby's chief said last month.

While the popular image of Japanese salarymen toiling long hours for the company before taking the last train home is changing, many still spend far more hours in the office than counterparts in other modern economies.

About 22.3 percent of Japanese employees work 50 hours or more each week on average, well above 12.7 percent in Britain, 11.3 percent in the United States, and 8.2 percent in France, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

A Japanese government study found that 16 percent of full-time workers took no paid holidays in 2013, while others took just half their allotted vacation on average.

In that year, the official tally was 196 deaths and suicides linked to excessive working hours -- but that is just the tip of the iceberg, said Ryukoku University professor Shigeru Waki.

"There are a lot more people who died or became ill due to overwork, but it is very hard to prove," he said.

- 'State of shock' -

With more employers not required to keep track of extra hours worked under the proposed bill, it will make it even tougher to know the extent of the problem, Waki said.

The mother of a 27-year-old Tokyo man who killed himself in 2009 said his official work hours were much less than the actual extra hours spent at his printing company. She opposes the new bill.

"I was in a state of shock when his company called to tell me he was dead," said the 68-year-old woman, who asked not to be identified.

"My son will not come back, but I want to speak up for other younger people."

For Yamashita, who was blinded by his condition, burning the candle at both ends to meet the demands of a high-pressure job was hardly worth the reward.

"I didn't even get to see my kids grow up because I was too busy -- I wish I could have lived a life for my family instead."

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