Overworked and Underpaid? You Ain’t Seen Nothing, Yet

  • November 18, 2016

Karoshi sounds like a pleasant Japanese word. “I’ll have the karoshi, please.” Unfortunately, you would be ordering a plate full of anxiety and exhaustion leading to a heart attack or suicide. The Japanese coined the word to describe deaths attributable to overwork.

Japanese workers are renowned for putting in long hours, very long hours. On top of the usual 40-hours work-week, many Japanese workers put in 80 or more hours of overtime a month. If they put in over 100 hours of overtime the month before they have a fatal heart attack, they are considered a victim of karoshi. If they work 160 hours of overtime in the month before they commit suicide, they are considered a victim of karoshi (reuters.com/article/us-japan-economy-overwork-idUSKCN0X000F).” About a quarter of Japanese companies reported having workers work 80 hours or more of overtime per month. That is a lot of overtime, especially since many of these workers are not paid for overtime.

Then again, only 130 years ago, most American workers in factories and offices worked six, ten-hour days (80 or more hours of overtime per month under today’s reckoning). Paid vacation? Never heard of the concept. Even today, during tax season, accountants and tax preparers work 60 or more hours per week for two or three months straight. University students should realize that in a few years, they will be expected to work long hours without overtime pay (if salaried). They work such long hours in order to impress their supervisors or in hopes of getting a promotion or a bonus. Beginning assistant professors, lawyers, and accountants are urged to put in at least 60 hours per week, and we have not even mentioned those tireless (but exhausted) medical residents with their legendary long hours.

Why do the Japanese work such long hours? Here is where cultural differences come into play. Japanese firms frequently offer lifetime jobs, based on mutual loyalty. The expectations are high on both sides. I presume that quitting a job because of long hours may render a worker suspect in the eyes of future potential employers. The institution of lifetime jobs, however, appears to be waning, as more and more workers are in “non-regular” jobs.

The Japanese tend to emphasize self-sacrifice. They are also keen on not losing face with the boss or their co-workers, a form of peer pressure. Working long hours is a way for workers to demonstrate their dedication to the company and to show co-workers that they are not shirking.

Some Japanese employers use a reprehensible “bait-and-switch” scam, hiring workers with a promise of reasonable working hours. The employer then reneges and offers successful applicants a contract mandating long hours without overtime pay. In some cases, the contracts stipulate that the worker must repay the company, if the employee works fewer than 80 hours per week. These types of contracts are illegal but employees are hesitant to turn down such conditions. Apparently Japanese government regulators are not too vigilant, as employers appear willing to flout the laws.

There is one aspect of this situation that befuddles economists. Japan’s low birth rate and hesitation to admit immigrant workers mean that there’s a growing shortage of workers. When the supply of workers diminishes relative to the demand for workers, workers usually benefit, as they can demand higher pay and better working conditions. On the other hand, the Japanese economy has been stagnant for decades, perhaps eroding workers’ leverage in bargaining with employers; the increased proportion of non-regular workers roughly coincides with the economic stagnation. For some reason, Japanese employers, instead, seem to be able to squeeze more work from their workers. Japanese workers with lifetime contracts may begin to feel pressured to work long hours to ensure their positions. Labor unions sometimes agree to tacit understandings that allow long work hours. Middle-aged men in white collar jobs used to be the main karoshi victims, but women now comprise an increasing proportion.

There is nothing inherently immoral or unethical in creating an environment where workers can freely demonstrate their loyalty and their initiative by working long hours. The ethical issue arises if such workers are compelled or coerced to do so. In any employer-employee relationship, there is an element of coercion: “Do this, or we will get someone else.” There are usually limits to the exercise of coercion, whether through formal regulations or informal, “live-and-let-live” guidelines of perceived fairness. In the case of karoshi, the situation may be tilted towards work-and-let–die.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.


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