Have you ever heard of the expression ‘overworked society’? Recently, in Japan, an artificial intelligence robot was unable to endure such long hours of work, and eventually reached the end of its life. There is an increasing number of people who criticize the practice of overworking, something that has spread like cancer throughout society, stressing that long-term forced labor is akin to gradual murder. Korea, like Japan, is a typical overworked country. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Friday, Friday: Korea is a country that has an endless week, a social climate that takes for granted endless work, and a country with the second largest annual working time among OECD member countries. In the face of this, the number of voices speaking out against overworking is increasing.
What is an ‘overworked society’
It is a term that refers to the deterioration of health and ability to resist disease, resulting in premature death, due to excessive working hours. Karoshi (death caused by overworking) is caused by heavy work loads or stress. From a legal perspective, there are problems related to the causality of overtime work, that is, the causal relationship with work. Generally, in the case of claiming industrial accident insurance due to being "overworked", proof may need to exist in the form of cerebrovascular diseases such as subarachnoid hemorrhages and cerebral hemorrhages, or heart diseases such as myocardial infarction and angina. The term "Karoshi" itself is not a disease, nor is it a term that is used formally in medicine.
According to actual OECD statistics for 2015, the annual average working time of Korean workers is 2113 hours, which is longer than Russia’s 1978 hours, the US’s 1790 hours, Japan’s 1719 hours, and more than 300 hours longer than the OECD average of 1770 hours. But in spite of this, at present, Korea does not write "Karoshi" on death certificates even if the cause was "overworking" because it is not a medical illness. Most of the 'Karoshi' we refer to are caused by brain and cardiovascular diseases. Currently, in Korea, work-related disease is only considered as such when workers are diagnosed with brain or cardiovascular diseases such as cerebral hemorrhages, subarachnoid hemorrhages, cerebral infarctions, hypertensive encephalopathy, angina pectoris, myocardial infarctions while employed. Even if symptoms have not occurred during working hours, it may be recognized as an occupational disease if the occurrence or worsening of the illness is related to the work temporally or medically obviously. In Korea, there are many risk factors that can induce 'overworking' due to the standardization of long working hours and competitive task performance. In many recent media reports, there have been a lot of articles related to the suspicion of "Karoshi", including the sudden deaths of researchers who worked frequent night shifts for gaming companies, the sudden deaths of 30 lawyers working for large law firms, and the deaths of public officials that repeatedly worked at night and on holidays. These events are all presumed to be related to 'overworking'. In our society, 'Karoshi' is no longer limited to those of a certain age or specific occupation. As a result, social anxiety is rising as the proposition that 'too much work can bring about premature death' becomes increasingly real.
There is no worry that you will be fired if you are incompetent, your salary is guaranteed, and you never have to submit to others; at least, these are the commonly held perceptions of public officials’ so-called ‘divine jobs’. The reality, however, is quite different. An average of 20 civil servants die annually, including police officers, firefighters, and those in holding office in local governments. But why did they have to die? By job category, public service has the highest death rate. Let's try to analyze the causes by job type of these public servants.
Let’s talk about the police first. The deaths of police officers are caused by shift work. Police officers working at police boxes or traffic safety offices usually work in four to two shifts. The first day is weekly work, the second day is nighttime, and the third and fourth days are off-duty patterns. This pattern is repeated. A police officer in the Gangbuk area of Seoul said, "As soon as the dispatch order is received, you have to take your gun and respond quickly, so the work intensity is high and what’s worse is that it is nerve-wracking." Working like this throughout the night, fatigue is common, particularly in trying to cope with high numbers of intoxicated individuals. Recently, three police officers who worked at a police box in Gyeongbuk, Pohang died. Everyone guessed it was due to ‘Karoshi’. One of the reasons for the overworking of police officers is that the police organization were instructed to maximize performance under the Lee Myung-bak regime. The performance-based annual salary system applied to more than the police station manager level, and resulted in 253 police stations in Korea being graded (S, A, B, or C) based on the yearly arrest rate and reduction rate of traffic accident deaths. Depending on the grade, the salary is up to 4 million won (based on the total gross income). Actually, a police officer in Seoul said, "As the chief is being put under so much pressure, meetings are always about performance."
Firefighters are also overworked, like police officers, due to irregular working patterns and work-related stress. The shortage of manpower also causes overworking, but the number of firefighting personnel that can be put into the workplace as of 2016 (32,460 persons) is only 62.8% of the eligible workers (51,714 persons). According to the Fire Department, the number of firefighting officers nationwide was 44,293 as of the end of last year, which is about 20,000 less than the required estimated manpower (52,144 persons) proposed by the Fire Service Basic Law. The situation that frontline firefighters feel is more serious. A firefighter at the Seoul Fire Department said, "Originally, Ten people work in three shifts, but currently, 8 people are woking. And several local firefighters solve the scarce manpower by supplying themselves." "Nonetheless, Seoul is better equipped than other cities or provinces across Korea."
Processing of national disasters and emotional labor of local public are also a major problem of overworking. Local government officials are suffering from emotional labor and physical difficulties because they have to deal with the complainants directly rather than writing documents. Actually, the team leader of Han Dae-Sung Livestock Sanitary Pocheon in Gyeonggi Province died of an acute myocardial infarction at dawn the next day due to avian influenza. He had been working overtime for five months. Social welfare officials are also in danger of a manpower shortage, but human resource recruitment in social welfare part is insufficient even so welfare demand is greatly increased. A prevalent thought is that unconditional commitment and work requiring high levels of compassion can be a natural trigger for psychological fatigue. According to the Health Survey (2013) conducted by the Labor and Health Research Institute on about 6,000 social welfare officials, 27.5% of respondents said they had felt suicidal impulses during the past year.
Overworking in Japan
Is Karoshi a problem for Korea only? The answer is no. The problem is also serious in Japan.
The long-hours labor problem in Japan became so serious that a cartoon was created to cover the issue of overworking, which subsequently gained tremendous popularity. In 2015, Japan's largest advertising company, Dentsu, was shocked when a 24-year-old worker suffered from the strains of her job so much that she committed suicide. This incident may have been an alarm bell for Japanese companies that had tolerated and supported long hours of labor, but still did not bring an end to overworking. According Japan’s Ministry of Health, in 2016 overworking was responsible for 198 cases of suicide, with 84 of these being categorized as industrial accidents. However, the number of workers who died due to occupational problems like task fatigue totals 1978 persons, according to statistics from Japan’s Ministry of Health and the National Police Agency of Japan. This statistic tells us that the number of recognition of industrial accidents is merely 'the tip of the iceberg'. In the meantime, the Japanese government is accelerating the reform of performance-based work as an alternative to work simply based on labor time. In addition, there are have been some other positive changes. Companies that agree with the slogan of "good rest" have introduced experimental work systems such as "work-ation" (combining work with vacation). For example, on a Friday, you might go to Hawaii to work on a company computer, and on weekends you get to enjoy your surroundings as a vacation. Though payments are paid regularly, but company doesnt count it as a paid holiday. So, even if you use ‘work-ation’ it doesnt make your days of paid holiday decrease. Actually, Japan Airlines (JAL) was the first big company to introduce this work system. However, it is not known whether actual working hours will be shortened because it is just the workplace is not a company. Nonetheless, there are still many concerns regarding these changes. There is a reaction that the corporate culture that depends on manpower and the individual recognition that emphasizes cooperation can be a stumbling block. In Japan, for example, Premium Friday, which recommends an early finish from work (3 pm) on the last Friday of every month, has been in effect since February but has still not been properly implemented.
How Can We Solve these Problems?
Firstly, we have to recruit more workers. There are a lot of cases where many people die from overworking because of the lack of manpower in various labor groups. So lots of labor unions have tried movements for change to solve this problem. For instance, The Jeju Union Branch of the National Collective Labor Union has held street rallies on the afternoon of the 1st of September 2017, asking for improvements in working conditions. On this day, participants of the rally have been seen holding placards covered with statements such as “Let's live like human beings by increasing our workforce by 4,500,'' and have also been involved in activities such as forming a national fact-finding committee for postmen who may have died from overworking. According to the Jeju branch of the Collective Labor Union, the total number of domestic delivery workers in the province is 252, which is 48 short of the minimum number of 300 delivery workers required. In addition to postal services, other workforces such as the police and fire service are working with less than half of the appropriate manpower.
Secondly, we need to establish reliable industrial accident standards. One out of three workers still appears to be unable to get recognition for industrial accidents caused by overworking. The reason for this is that in order to be recognized as an industrial accident, the worker needs to have been diagnosed with cerebrovascular disease or heart disease. Therefore, various cancers and liver diseases often do not qualify. Because of these problems, the government revised the Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance Act Enforcement Decree of 2013 to establish standards for the recognition of Karoshi and illnesses caused by it. If the working hours during the 3 months (12 weeks) before the onset of the illness exceeded 60 hours a week, a highly relevant connection between the disease and the work is believed to have been established. This is due to the point that there are no standards to judge brain or cardiovascular diseases like brain stroke and heart attack which caused by overwork as the industrial accident. Another reason for the low accreditation rate of health issues related to overworking is 'examination based on documents only'. In order for brain or cardiovascular diseases, which constitute an absolute majority of Karoshi, to be recognized as occupational diseases, it is necessary to conduct surveys on the actual condition of workload increases during the short term before the onset of the disease.
Lastly, we ought to revise the Labor Standards Act. Recently, there have been many problems caused by having an overworked society; thus, movement towards the amendment of the Labor Standards Act has gathered pace. President Moon Jae-in announced on October 16th of this year that "One of the biggest issues in Korean society is overworking." He said that "Society should no longer be dismissive of long working hours and overworking." I cannot raise the employment rate and the quality of people's lives without increasing job sharing by shortening working hours. It is time for all members of our society to make responsible decisions and implement responsible practices.” The revised bill of the Labor Standards Law, which President Moon referred to, is currently pending in the National Assembly's Environment and Labor Committee, and the main content covers aiming to reduce the current maximum working time of 68 hours per week to 52. President Moon said, "The current revision of the Labor Standards Act pending in the National Assembly has been fully discussed since the 18th National Assembly, so please try to pass it.”
Our country has long been an overworked society. In fact, in the news media, it is reported every year that about 300 workers die. In order to prevent further health problems and deaths, it is necessary to change the legal regulations and social trends that have previously normalized overworking.
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