Silent scourge – Hard questions about ‘death by overwork’


St. Bernard Clairvaux, the medieval mystic, warned of the perils of overwork.

“Watch out for the dangers of excessive activity,” he wrote. “Too many occupations can lead to hardening of the heart, as well as suffering of the spirit.”

In China the consequences of overwork are far worse.

One of them is death.

It is estimated that each year around 600,000 Chinese die as a result of exhaustion caused by overwork. Some studies put that number as high as 1 million.

One difficulty in getting accurate numbers is that overwork isn’t a “disease.” You don’t die from it. Extreme fatigue could progressively weaken a person’s immune system and that may destroy them. The cause of death will likely not be recorded as exhaustion but something else.

Such, in fact, was the case with Hu Xinyu, a software engineer with Huawei Technologies, a major telecom company in China’s Guangdong province who died in May this year.

Xinyu’s death, it was discovered, was the result of extreme fatigue caused by overwork. However, the proximate cause of his death (listed in hospital reports) was bacterial encephalitis.

The software engineer’s tragic story has been widely reported in the mainstream media as well as niche publications. Here’s a capsule: Xinyu, before he joined Huawei, was an athlete and sports enthusiast. At Huawei, he was quickly co-opted into the company’s gruelling routine. Work progressively got more strenuous when he got involved with an R&D project. All of April, he put in long hours of overtime, eventually caving in to the extreme job pressure. In his highly weakened condition, Xinyu contracted an infection that eventually led to his death on May 28.

The incident triggered a public outcry – not because it was an exceptional event in urban China, but precisely because it was not. In his death, Xinyu has become a symbol for thousands of Chinese workers – including IT professionals – trapped by this “culture” (read contagion) of overwork.

A few days after Xinyu’s death, a Huawei spokesman said the company was saddened by the news, adding that no employee should work later than 10 p.m. without permission and that no one was allowed to stay inside the workplace overnight.

Xinyu’s death also sparked avid and emotional discussion on Chinese and global online blogs, chat groups and bulletin boards, as well as in mainstream and niche media publications.

Opinions proffered were wide and varied:

• Many put the blame squarely on the “sweatshop” culture that prevails in many Chinese companies. Corporate success, they declared, should not trump staff well-being, and corporations have no right whatsoever to slave drive their employees just to stay competitive.

• Quite a few disagreed. They noted that in many cases – especially among white-collar workers – overwork is a choice, not an imposition. They argued that if many Chinese workers, in their quest for a better lifestyle, choose to work crazy hours, they should also accept the consequences.

• Other commentators focused on weak labour laws and weaker yet enforcement that encourages many businesses operating in China to adopt the “profit at any cost” principle.

• Then there were those who focused their comments on the feeble or non-existent employee support infrastructure in Chinese companies – such as corporate health benefit programs, equitable policies governing contract labour and so on.

• And one sociology professor even suggested a sweatshop culture is understandable in a company’s nascent stages, but should be relinquished when the firm achieves stability and success. Huawei’s gruelling work schedule, she said, may have been appropriate when the firm was a start-up, but it isn’t now that Huawei is a “successful” enterprise (sales of around $US$8.2 billion, and more than 40,000 employees).

I’m not going to comment on all these views but let me say I fervently disagree with the last one.

A start-up that climbs to the top by slave-driving its staff is unlikely to reverse this practice once it achieves success, competitive strength, and stability. More likely than not, the culture of exploitation will persist, perhaps in more subtle forms and with differences of scale. Huawei is but an extreme example of this.

That aside, the entire discourse on the impact of overwork in China and other “developing” countries needs to also be conducted at another level.

Privatizing profit and socializing risk is one of the destructive consequences of globalization, say some left leaning thinkers . Well then, irresponsible outsourcing by many overseas multinationals is one expression of this phenomenon.

From the perspective of companies doing the outsourcing, however, opting for offshore destinations with emasculated or non-existent labour protections may not seem irresponsible at all. It may be a conscious decision taken to enhance “efficiency”, reduce the cost of doing business, and stay competitive.

That possibly explains the strong opposition that China’s proposed new labour law – expected to take effect in March 2007 – is inviting from many foreign-owned multinationals.

The health, safety, and job security provisions of the proposed law are expected to benefit millions of China’s casual and migrant workers – the mainstay of the industry sector. The legislation offers greater protections to contract workers, and also provides compensation to dismissed workers in consultation with the union.

One potential fallout could be abolition of government-owned employment agencies that currently take a high percentage of employee salaries.

All this seems wonderful. Why then the formidable resistance to what – on the face of it – are welcome and long overdue reforms?

The Guardian, U.K.,reports that the American Chamber of Commerce has shot off a 42-page petition to the Chinese government asking it to reconsider. According to media reports, many transnational companies are pressuring China to ditch regulatory laws in favour of voluntary guidelines for corporate social responsibility.

Foreign-owned companies are reportedly warning that expected increases in production costs (as a result of the proposed law) would make them re-evaluate new investments, or to suspend their operations altogether in China.

That’s strange. It seems to me their efforts should be in the reverse direction.

Instead of re-evaluating new investments, shouldn’t these corporations be re-evaluating the way they do business in “developing” countries?

In the light of recent incidents, shou

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