Thursday 30 March 2017

Beef Bowls and Death from Overwork

A picture of a large helping of beef and onion on a bed of rice known as "beef-bowl"
Gyūdon or "beef-bowl": popular and very cheap fast-food
The picture on the left shows the popular Japanese fast food known as gyūdon (牛丼). Composed of the characters for "cow" and "bowl", it's a slightly sweet tasting beef and onion mix on a bed of rice. It's fast and cheap: this is a large serving (ōmori) with extra green onion and Korean kimchee topping for ¥590 (£4/$5). There is fierce competition among the big three beef-bowl shops; this was bought at Sukiya (below) which has become notorious in recent years for its poor working conditions. In particular it was heavily criticised for running the night shift with just one, often part-time, worker. Part-timers typically earn just under ¥1000 (£7/$9) an hour while full-timers rarely get paid for all the overtime they are expected to perform.

A picture outside looking in the popular beef-bowl chain "Sukiya"
Always open: The beef-bowl chain "Sukiya"
Overwork and unpaid overtime has become a huge social problem in Japan and the term "black company" (ブラック企業) has entered the common lexicon. There is even a prize for the "most evil corporation of the year." Last year's top prize was awarded to advertising giant Dentsu, following the suicide of 24-year-old female worker caused by depression due to overwork. In Japanese, death from overwork is called karōshi (過労死) made up of the characters for "too much", "work", and "death." The Dentsu case has become something of a watershed moment in Japan, prompting government action, including the introduction of "Premium Friday" where workers (theoretically) leave work at 3:00 on the last Friday of each month. On Tuesday, the government approved a draft plan on overtime regulations as part of its "work-style reforms" (hatarakikata kaikaku). The plan sets the upper limit for overtime at 720 hours a year, averaging 60-hours a month - but up to 100 at "busy times", significantly above the 80-hour karōshi danger line. Although framed in the media as an improvement, some critics have called it a "total capitulation by labour" with families of victims fearing that it will effectively legalise karōshi.
The Japanese have long been characterised as workaholics - in 1991, then French Prime-Minister Edith Cresson famously likened them to "ants" - but in actual fact many Japanese, whether part-time or full-time, have little choice but to constantly work. No wonder Japan came 51st in the recent World Happiness Report - a finding backed up by domestic surveys. Which raises the question: is Japan really a "rich" country?