Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Working to death: Karoshi

On page A12 of Sunday's Washington Post, is a story titled, "Japan's Killer Work Ethic: Toyota Engineer's Family Awarded Compensation."  It talks about Karoshi, which is the Japanese term for dying as a result of working too much.  
Related to the story is that according to the last OECD figures, South Koreans have the longest work hours in the world: 
The average South Korean works 2,390 hours each year, according to the OECD. This is over 400 hours longer than the next longest-working country and 34% more hours than the average in the United States (1777). In Canada, the average of hours worked per year is 1717. A typical workweek in South Korea is 44 hours or longer. Most people start their day at 8am and end at around 7pm or later, often having dinner before returning to work. Until legislation in 2004 that virtually abolished the six-day workweek in large corporations known as "jaebol", South Korea was the only country in the OECD that worked Saturdays.
South Korea and Japan are the only countries where death by work or "karoshi" (과로사) is a recognized phenomenon. Their respective economic booms are not without consequence, but it's less fashionable to talk about than gadgets, I suppose. But it's the consequences that need the most coverage, and thought as to how to mitigate them. 
I believe that this has huge implications for how communication technologies are used (I include online gaming in this category), as work and play is increasingly blurred.  This phenomenon is articulated in Asia, sure, but one can see labour practices in the North American knowledge sector being affected as well. Think of the stereotypical Silicon Valley worker and the 60+ workweek necessary for basic "cred," with often little to no extra compensation except for the privilege of keeping one's job.  Vincent Mosco (Canada Research Chair in Communication and Society) published a book last year called, "Knowledge Workers in the Information Society" edited with Catherine McKercher on this very topic. 
Communication technologies, which are the primary vessels of knowledge labour, serve to blur the lines between work and leisure.  We therefore need to reassess how we think about work, leisure, plugging in, and being 'always on.'  Is it that the individual cannot control themselves, or is the expectation of one's (workplace) culture or society to be implicated in the process?Knowledge workers have not had an 'industrial revolution.' 
Speaking of always on, Vancouver sure wasn't at the start of the week with a power outage that hamstrung the business district on Monday, and continues. So much of our labour relies on electricity, that once we were without it, I just saw people wandering around downtown aimlessly... lost. Then they were told to go home.

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Blogger James Turnbull said...

Koreans do indeed work long hours in terms of when they arrive and leave their workplaces, but the reality is much more nuanced than those OECD figures for working hours suggest, and which unfortunately tend to get accepted uncritically overseas (ie by Time, the Economist and so on, so you're in good company(!), and I don't mean to criticize). As the following link makes clear, much is simply due to keeping up appearances until the boss leaves, and with all the sleeping, computer-game playing, and midday visits to motels for illicit affairs before the evening then Korea's productivity per hour is middle-of-the-range at best:

There are many links in my own post on the topic that you may be interested in:

11:03 PM  
Blogger Florence Chee said...

Thanks for your comment James.
Having worked in Korean offices myself, I am familiar with the phenomenon of which you speak.
What is actually done during the work time is definitely worth considering (and something in my own fieldnotes that I didn't get to take up in my thesis explicitly the last time around), but my commentary on the situation was regarding the factors contributing to karoshi (i.e. cultural/societal expectations).
That employers do expect their workers to stay hours at the desk until they leave, regardless of what is done is more easily done with knowledge labour. It is similar to the type of thing we see in software companies in N.America where there may be some 'downtime' between releases, so to speak.
I'm glad you brought up the 'actual productivity' factor. I am interested in that as well, but more than that... what -are- people doing socially during that time, and towards what end?

8:15 AM  

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