It was just before midnight on Nov. 6. Mr. Cai, 26, was working hard on his computer at the small branch of Taobao which he managed in a county of Wenzhou, southeast China. Suddenly, he slumped onto the desk and then rolled onto the floor, unconscious.
After coming round two minutes later, he declined an offer by his colleagues to take him to hospital and went to sleep in the office. Early next morning they found his body cold; doctors at the hospital could do nothing to save him.
Cai was the sixth manager of an e-commerce branch to die in this way over the last 18 months. They were not alone. China has now overtaken Japan as the country with the largest number of deaths from overwork, 60,000 per year.
“In China, those who work with their brains are more likely to die of overwork than those who work with their hands,” said Global Times. “Of white-collar workers, 90 percent have an unhealthy lifestyle – overweight, diabetes, heart illness, high blood pressure, lack of sleep, depression and over-eating or over-drinking.
“In recent years, the work environment in China has worsened, which is why we have overtaken Japan,” it said.
Since the 1980s, Japan has legally recognized overwork as a cause of death – karoshi in Japanese. In November 2007, a court in Nagoya accepted the claim by the wife of a 30-year-old Toyota employee that her husband was a victim of karoshi; he had put in more than 80 hours of overtime a month during the six months before his death. This enabled her to receive substantial payments from Toyota and the government.
In China, working conditions increasingly resemble those in Japan – lengthy and crowded commuting, long working hours, many of them unpaid, lack of job security, intense competition for work and the knowledge that, if you cannot tolerate the working conditions, dozen of others are willing to take your place. Another factor is the high cost of housing; most urban Chinese must work for decades to pay the mortgage on their small apartment. The only legal trade union is that controlled by the government; power rests with the employer.
E-commerce, the sector in which Cai worked, is a case in point. It is a remarkable success story, attracting an increasing volume of business away from traditional outlets. In the first nine months of this year, the revenue of express delivery trade was 185 billion yuan (US$30.4 billion), up 27.2 per cent over the same period last year.
Nov. 11, Singles Day, was a very busy period; Cai died as he was preparing for it. Between Nov. 11 and 16, 323 million packets were delivered, 20 percent of them on the first day, double the volume of 2012. It is a 24-hours-a-day business, which means enormous pressure on the staff from their managers and the customers.
Those who worked with Cai said that he worked most days until the evening, with severe mental and physical strain, and feared complaints by clients, for whom an instant reply was necessary. Like other managers in this sector, he started in e-commerce with normal hours; then it evolved into a 24-hour-a-day business. The profit margin on each individual item is small.
In May 2012, the 24-year-old lady manager of a Taobao branch in Hangzhou died suddenly, as she was preparing to marry. In July this year, the 36-year-old manager of a well-known portal in Hunan selling electrical appliances also died suddenly.
Other high-stress professions include doctors, police, accountants, managers of private companies, and staff of multinational companies and internet firms.
Unlike Japan, China has no legal definition of “death through overwork”. The new regulations on work injuries and insurance do not include it. This means that the families of those who die in this way have no legal recourse; the companies where they work may choose to make a compassionate payment, to cover the cost of the funeral or as compensation to family members, but are not obliged to.
In lawsuits, the employers deny that overwork alone was the cause of death.
“From a psychological point of view, very many young people are prepared to work to breaking point today to gain a benefit in the future,” the China Youth Daily said in a commentary. “They lack a sense of security, which arises from anxiety over the conditions of their life. They worry about how to make themselves stronger than others. How can they afford that apartment of 80 square meters?”
Mark O’Neill, a Hong Kong-based journalist and author, writes on Greater China. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.