Analysis: Chinese white-collar employees are dying at their desks

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Beijing - Chinese banking regulator Li Jianhua literally worked himself to death. After 26 years of “always putting the cause of the party and the people” first, his employer said this month, the 48-year-old official died rushing to finish a report before the sun came up.

China is facing an epidemic of overwork, to hear the state-controlled press and Chinese social media tell it. About 600 000 Chinese a year die from working too hard, according to the China Youth Daily. China Radio International in April reported a toll of 1 600 a day.

Microblogging website Weibo is filled with complaints about stressed-out lives and chatter about reports of others, young and old, worked to death: a 24-year-old junior employee at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, a 25-year-old auditor at PwC; one of the chief designers of China’s next-generation fighter planes at state-run AVIC Shenyang Aircraft.

“What’s the point of working overtime so you can work to death?” asked one commentator on Weibo, lamenting that his boss told employees to spend more time on the job.

The rising death rate comes as China’s workforce appears to be getting the upper hand, with a shrinking labour pool able to demand higher wages and factory workers regularly going on strike.

The message hasn’t gotten through to China’s white-collar warriors. In exchange for starting salaries typically double blue-collar pay, they put in hours of overtime on top of eight-hour workdays, often in violation of Chinese labour law, according to Geoffrey Crothall, the spokesman for labour advocacy group the China Labour Bulletin.

“China is still a rising economy, and people are still buying into that hardworking ethos,” Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University in Tokyo, said. “They haven’t yet achieved the affluenza that led to questioning in Japan of norms and values.”

Japan is where the term karoshi, or death from overwork, gained notoriety. It encompasses deaths from stroke, heart attack, cerebral haemorrhage or other sudden causes related to demands of the workplace. Because the causal relationship to work-related stress may not be evident, the death toll can be subjective and difficult to compile.

Japan’s parliament passed a law on June 20 calling for support centres, aid to businesses for prevention programmes and more research on karoshi. The government in 2012 compensated 813 families able to show a link between overwork, illness and death, including 93 suicides.

The actual toll may be higher. Japan’s police agency counted more than 2 000 work-related suicides last year, and lawyers in 2009 said 10 000 deaths a year may be from overwork.

In China, such deaths are known as guolaosi.

“We have noticed that excessive overtime in China has become an issue,” the director of the International Labour Organisation’s China office, Tim De Meyer, said. “It is worrying as a physical and mental health hazard.”

Work-life balance received short shrift in a society that combined a modern pursuit of riches with an ancient belief in putting the community above the individual, Yang Heqing, the dean of the School of Labour Economics at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, said.

In parts of China’s capital he had surveyed, 60 percent of workers complained of clocking more than the legal limit of two hours a day of overtime, taking a toll on workers’ families and health, he said. He was sceptical of the 600 000 figure, which he said might include other causes, and was working to compile his own data.

China’s banking regulator Li had reason to be stressed. He ran the China Banking Regulatory Commission’s (CBRC) division overseeing the boom in China’s trust products. He had travelled to 10 provinces in the second half of last year and met with 68 trust companies.

Employees in Li’s department regularly worked until midnight or later, according to a colleague who asked not to be identified. His death, categorised as from “long-term overwork” by the CBRC, was the latest in a string of cases garnering media attention. – Bloomberg


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