In China, White-Collar Workers Are Dying From Overwork

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 in June, the 48-year-old official died of a heart attack 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 people a year die from toiling too hard, according to the China Youth Daily. State-controlled China Radio International puts the toll at 1,600 a day.

Microblogging website Sina Weibo (WB) is filled with complaints about stressed-out lives and chatter about press reports of people working themselves to death: a 24-year-old employee at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, a 25-year-old auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers, a designer of fighter planes. “What’s the point of working overtime so you can work to death?” asks a Weibo user, noting that his own boss told employees to spend more time on the job.

Angela Pan's Weibo pageWeiboAngela Pan’s Weibo page

The state, however, is holding up worked-to-death employees as heroes akin to earlier Communist martyrs such as Lei Feng, a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army who’s been lionized in propaganda campaigns since the 1960s for his selfless devotion to the party. Li’s employer released a statement on June 10 praising him as “a model for party members and cadres of the China Banking Regulatory Commission.” It said that to “learn from Comrade Li Jianhua, one must be like him, always firm in ideals and beliefs, the broader interest, loyal to the cause of the party and the people, unremitting struggle sacrificing everything.”

Because the link between these deaths and work-related stress may not always be clear, the death toll can be subjective and difficult to compile. Death from overwork is as much a cultural phenomenon as a medical one, though the governments of Japan and Taiwan officially recognize cases for insurance compensation. The actual underlying causes of death encompass a wide range of illnesses such as heart attack or stroke that are aggravated by the stress of overtime. In the U.S., people don’t die from overwork, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say heart disease is the leading cause of death, and studies have linked sitting too long to an early death. Americans work an average of 45 hours a year more than the Japanese, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In China, white-collar worries about overwork reflect a tipping point in economic development. The Chinese service sector has eclipsed manufacturing in terms of economic output, while factory workers are taking advantage of their shrinking numbers to negotiate shorter hours and better pay. Office workers are still paid more than factory hands but have few of the protections a union can offer. They have bigger bills to pay for housing and cars. There is also demographic pressure: China’s one-child policy has created a generation of only children supporting aging parents and their own families.

In exchange for starting salaries that are typically double blue-collar pay, office workers put in hours of overtime often in violation of Chinese labor law, according to Geoffrey Crothall, spokesman for the China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor advocacy group. “China is still a rising economy, and people are still buying into that hardworking ethos,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University in Tokyo. “They haven’t yet achieved the ‘affluenza’ that led to questioning in Japan of norms and values.”

In Japan, death from overwork is called karoshi. (In China it’s guolaosi.) Karoshi includes deaths from stroke, heart attack, cerebral hemorrhage, or other sudden causes related to the demands of the job. In 2012, the Japanese government compensated 813 families who were able to show a link between overwork, illness, and death, including 93 suicides. The Parliament passed a law on June 20 calling for support centers, aid to businesses for prevention programs, and more research on karoshi.

Work-life balance still gets short shrift in China, a society that combines a modern pursuit of riches with an ancient belief in putting the community above the individual, says Yang Heqing, dean of the School of Labor Economics at the Capital University of Economics and Business. In Beijing’s business district, he’s surveyed hundreds of workers about their lives at home and at the office. Sixty percent of workers complain of clocking more than the legal limit of two hours a day of overtime, which is taking a toll on their families and health, he says. “More than in the Anglo-American corporate system, in Korea, China, and Japan—the countries of the Confucian belt—there’s a belief in total dedication,” says Temple University’s Kingston. “Any job worth doing is worth doing excessively.”

Li ran the division of the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) that’s overseeing the boom in trust products, investments considered part of an estimated $6.2 trillion shadow banking system that officials have sought to bring under government control. He traveled to 10 provinces in the second half of 2013 and met with all 68 trust companies. Employees in Li’s department regularly worked until midnight or later, according to a colleague who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak publicly.

Li’s death, categorized as the result of “long-term overwork” by the CBRC, was the latest in a string of cases that have attracted media attention. Angela Pan, a PricewaterhouseCoopers auditor in Shanghai, wrote on her personal blog about working through weekends, needing a vacation, and suffering from fevers, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. A colleague in her Beijing office said employees were given tasks “impossible to finish without overtime.” Pan’s death drew more than 30,000 comments on Weibo from users attributing her death to overwork, Xinhua said. A statement by PricewaterhouseCoopers at the time of her 2011 death said Pan, a first-year associate, had contracted encephalitis and taken sick leave to check into a hospital, where she later died.

Gabriel Li, the Ogilvy employee who worked in the technology department of the agency’s Beijing office, died in May 2013, crying out and keeling over as he stood up from his desk on his first day back from medical leave, according to a report in the Beijing Times. Ogilvy’s Asia-Pacific Chief Executive Officer Scott Kronick declined to comment.

In earlier decades of the Communist Party’s rule, those lucky enough to land office jobs at sprawling state-owned enterprises were guaranteed cradle-to-grave employment, housing, even food and schooling for their children. Two-hour lunches often sweetened the deal. Those perks disappeared as China opened the door to capitalism in the 1980s and inefficient enterprises shed jobs and benefits to compete. Now cubicle jockeys such as Li toil overtime, have long commutes, and regularly dine out with clients.

The death of Luo Yang, called the father of China’s fighter-jet program, prompted questions about the country’s work ethic. He died at 51 of a heart attack on the same day in 2012 that the plane he developed, the J-15, made its first successful landing on an aircraft carrier. “We only know of the sacrifice of Luo Yang, but we don’t know how many other people on his team died of overwork—isn’t it because of such admirable workers that the nation has reached its current status?” wrote a Weibo blogger who goes by Ordinary Yang MS.

Li never discussed his personal problems with colleagues, according to the CBRC. In early April his doctor noticed some unusual symptoms, including excess blood flow to the eye, and suggested he go to the hospital for a checkup; Li “smiled and said he didn’t have any time,” the Chinese Financial News said. He’d been up late at home and “collapsed while working, suddenly dying in the early morning of April 23,” the CBRC statement read. When Li’s wife tried to notify his office about his death, she didn’t know anyone to call despite his years on the job. She had to find someone to pass along the message, says another person at the agency who declined to give his name because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly.

The CBRC didn’t respond to questions about the trust department’s working hours or Li’s death. “At some point,” says Crothall of the China Labour Bulletin, “someone is going to stop and ask the question: ‘Why are we doing this to ourselves?’”

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