JAKARTA — Asia’s economic rise has come with some downsides: income inequality in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, environmental degradation in Vietnam and China, uncontrolled urban sprawl and clogged traffic in Manila and Mumbai.
For millions of employees, from those in low-paying factory jobs to high-pressure corporate positions, long working hours are another pitfall. Japan and South Korea are Asia’s longest-established high-income economies and both figure at the wrong end of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s index of working hours.
South Koreans worked 2,113 hours on average during 2015, the second highest in the OECD. Japan’s figure of 1,719 hours was much closer to the OECD average of 1,766, but the world’s third-biggest economy nonetheless retains its image as having a culture of work first, personal life second. That image was reinforced by a recent government survey showing that many Japanese workers are putting in more overtime than their OECD counterparts.
In a separate study, South Korea had the second-highest rate of suicide among OECD members, at 28.7 cases per 100,000 people, in 2013. Japan was fourth, at 18.7.
THE ULTIMATE PRICE There is, it seems, a link between hard work and untimely death in Asia. Perhaps the most luridly tragic side effect of Asia’s push for growth is karoshi, a Japanese term describing death from overwork, often by suicides but also linked to exhaustion and stress.
Japan saw compensation claims for karoshi and illnesses related to overwork rise to a record high of 2,310 cases in 2015. A government white paper published this October warned that almost a quarter of the workforce could be vulnerable to karoshi, with the benchmark set at employees who work more than 80 hours of overtime each month.
The suicide of Matsuri Takahashi, an employee of advertising agency Dentsu, in December 2015 seems to have sparked a more determined push for reform. The 24-year-old jumped to her death from a company dormitory after putting in more than 100 hours of overtime the previous month.
On Nov. 7, Tokyo Labor Bureau officials raided Dentsu offices on suspicion of violating labor laws. The following day, Yasuhisa Shiozaki, minister of health, labor and welfare, said the ministry “will thoroughly investigate, eyeing the possibility of sending the case to prosecutors.”
A forum on tackling long working hours was held in Tokyo on Nov. 25, with speakers ranging from a doctor to a journalist and a human resources chief. Participants agreed that Japan needs a cap on working hours and rules on rest intervals — neither of which exist in practice.
But despite the hardship caused by long working hours, and studies showing that excessive overtime is actually counter-productive, will corporate Japan relent? Dentsu “has played down the authorities’ directive to correct its long overtime hours,” one senior labor ministry official said, adding that labor officials had contacted the company numerous times since 2010 over working hours.
With economies booming across Asia, concerns are growing about how growth-hungry countries with less-developed laws and regulations can avoid their own crises.
For some, it may be too late. China already has its own term for karoshi — guolaosi — and state media in 2014 suggested that some 1,600 people a day succumb to overwork. Evidence suggests that the nation’s growing legions of cubicled office workers are more likely to make up the grim statistics than their lower-paid, unionized factory counterparts.
In less-developed Asian economies, cities such as Jakarta and Manila can see eight-hour work days turn into 12- or 13-hour marathons when the draining morning and evening commutes through heavy traffic are factored in.
HARD PROBLEM There are no easy solutions to Asia’s epidemic of overwork. The region could look to Europe, where strong trade unions, generous social welfare provisions and far-reaching labor laws mean workers are rarely overburdened. Germany passed legislation establishing a 40-hour workweek half a century ago, and a 2014 Eurobarometer survey suggested that 80% of Europeans are happy with their working hours.
But surveys indicate that Germans want to work closer to 30 hours a week, while France’s left-right political divide has deepened in recent years in part due to clashes over the country’s extremely generous worker benefits, such as long holidays, which critics say undermine business competitiveness. Protecting employee rights and improving working conditions while maintaining economic growth is a tricky balance for any government to achieve.
An alternative solution could come from the private sector, namely the much-touted “gig economy” of short-term contracts and so-called digital nomads.
This way of working is on the rise in the West, and is also coming to Asia. Ride-hailing companies like Grab and Didi provide for drivers, who operate as independent contractors rather than employees, as they would if they worked for a conventional taxi company.
But while this type of employment usually means working remotely, with greater personal freedom, the lack of income security and the unpredictable nature of what is essentially freelance work could prompt another kind of despair.
A more immediate solution may be found in the order and efficiency of Singapore. Despite their long hours, workers there seem to be much happier with their lot than their counterparts elsewhere.
A survey by recruitment agency Morgan McKinley found that while more than 70% of workers in Singapore put in overtime, more than 80% of them described this time as more productive than their regular hours. In Japan, only 26% felt the same way, according to the survey.
Moreover, nearly half of the Singaporean respondents said their employers offered the option of working from home, while two-thirds said they have some freedom in setting their start and finish times. This sense of control may go a long way in explaining why workers can put in long hours without too much of a frown.
Nikkei staff writers Tomomi Kikuchi in Singapore, Joyce Ho in Hong Kong, Kentaro Iwamoto and Seiya Tsuji in Tokyo, Yu Nakamura in Guangzhou, Kim Jaewon in Seoul, and Nikkei assistant journalist Kyra Jaeger in Frankfurt contributed to this report.