Death from Overwork in China

A new phenomenon – death from overwork (guolaosi) – has become increasingly common in China since the turn of the century and has attracted widespread publicity and comment in the Chinese media in recent months. (A similar phenomenon has long been the focus of public attention in Japan, where it is known as karoshi.) The following are some typical case reports of this disturbing new trend:

- On 7 July 2006, the country's major news websites all carried the story of Liu Yunfang, a textile worker at the Changlong Textile Plant in Fujian, who had suddenly died on the job from heatstroke brought on by sheer overwork.

- On 28 May, Hu Xinyu, an engineer at the Huawei Company in Shenzhen died from exhaustion after working excessive overtime hours for nearly one month.

- Last year, on 28 October, He Chunmei, a 30-year-old woman employed at the Huaxin Arts and Handicrafts Company Ltd. in Guangzhou, collapsed on the road outside the factory just after finishing her third overtime shift in 72 hours. She reportedly had slept a total of only six hours during that period. She never regained consciousness.

- Late at night on 30 May 2005, Gan Hongying, 35, died in her rented room in the Haizhu District of Guangzhou right after completing a four-day stretch of working 14 hours per day. The doctor's certificate read simply: "sudden death" (cu si).

- In June 2004, Yao Fangmei, a 23-year-old woman, and Zhou Zhiyong, a 19-year-old man, both employed at the Taiwan-invested Nangang Shoe Factory, a subsidiary of the Nanhai Zhaoxin Enterprise Holding Company, both died from overwork within a five-day period.  The two shoe workers had regularly worked 14 or 15-hour days at the factory over a two-month period, before finally collapsing on the production line. Both workers died in hospital a few days later.

- At 6.00 am on 21 October 2003, a worker named Jin Wenchao died on the way home from his factory after working for 35 hours over a two-day period. He had been employed as a packer in the Baolian Manufacturing Company in Jiangling Village, in the Longgang District of Shenzhen. 

China's version of the karoshi phenomenon, however, has by no means been confined to the ranks of blue-collar workers. A recent report entitled "A Survey of the Health of Intellectuals", issued by the Shanghai Academy of Technology and Science, found that whereas the average life expectancy of the city's intellectuals 10 years ago was 58 to 59 years, it had now fallen to the level of only 53 to 54 years. According to official news sources, no fewer than 134 professors and academic experts from the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences and various local universities died from overwork over the past five years.

Moreover, in its 2006 Blue Paper on "Developing Human Resources in China (Report No. 3)", the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences ascertained that as many as 70 percent of China's intellectuals currently faced, to a greater or lesser extent, the risk of premature death from exhaustion. The survey report also found that in the cities along China's eastern and southern coast, where the development of specialized skills and technology is particularly advanced, the problem of death from exhaustion among intellectuals was growing steadily more acute and the average age of those dying from overwork was getting steadily lower.

Most disturbing of all: in July 2006, the journal Liaowang Eastern Weekly (Liaowang Dongfang Zhoukan) revealed that according to statistics published by the China Association for the Promotion of Physical Health, at least one million people in China currently die from overwork each year. This is a staggeringly high figure.

Why are so many people from various classes and walks of life dying from overwork in China these days? A number of government officials and leading intellectuals have offered opinions on this subject over the past year or so. Some attribute the problem to the rising pressure to survive and make a living in a society that is growing ever more competitive and materialistic. According to others, it is the country's weak labour laws and the government's failure to enforce them that are to blame. Some commentators say the problem is due to China's inadequate social security system. Others argue that the "death from overwork" phenomenon has arisen because the government has relinquished too much of its former authority over commercial enterprises; and also because the country's business leaders and entrepreneurs place far too little value on the basic health and well-being of their employees. In other words, it is because China's new elite is interested only in making money.

Various solutions to this problem have been proposed in China over the past few years. These boil down to: first, the need to strengthen implementation and enforcement of the country's laws, especially the labour laws; and second, the need to make educational efforts aimed at raising people's awareness of the risks of overwork and at changing the country's overall work culture. Here again, however, as in so many other areas of daily life in China where basic labour rights are regularly ignored and violated, there has been no public discussion of the single most obvious and effective measure that the government could adopt, if it was really serious about finding ways of reducing the appalling figure of one million or so needless deaths across the country every year. Namely: to allow Chinese workers to form their own trade union organizations, or at the very least, workers' health and safety committees in every workplace in the country, so that workers would be able to collectively stand up to any employers who insist on pushing them beyond their safe physical and psychological working limits.

An example of the wider social risks that the government is running by failing to address the problem of excessive and unsafe working hours in China today, came just two weeks ago, on 22 July, when more than 1,000 workers at the Merton Company's Hengli Toy Factory in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, exploded in angry protest against these and other abusive company policies. The workers, who manufacture toys for the U.S. fast-food chain McDonald's, among others, became involved in a violent confrontation with hundreds of police officers who were sent in to restore "normal production" at the factory, resulting in numerous injuries and at least one death among the workers. At the heart of these and numerous similar instances of mass worker unrest in China today are the closely related problems of excessive working hours – by now virtually systemic in most southern and coastal cities – and excessively low pay. If China's intellectuals are now succumbing in ever growing numbers from chronic overwork, one can be sure that the problem is much greater still – although as yet, apparently, under-researched and under-reported – among the country's hard-pressed, 150-million or so migrant workers.

11 August 2006

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