21 year old Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML) intern Moritz Erhardt dropped dead in his shower, having worked gruelling hours over a number of weeks in the promise of landing his dream job in the City. Erhardt is not alone. Across the world, people are increasingly working themselves to death. What kind of economy rests on these kind of mortally exploitative labour conditions? Ours.
Brits Working Themselves to Death
Moritz Erhardt was found collapsed in his shower by fellow interns sharing his accommodation in Bethnal Green, London. He was reportedly subject to the “magic roundabout” where investment banking interns at BAML are driven from work to their accommodation by a taxi, which waits while they shower and change clothes, to take them straight back to the office for yet another long day. Erhardt was rumoured to have worked 21 hour days in the three days preceding his death.
BAML’s Head of International Communications John McIvor was quintessentially macho in his response when questioned about rumours of young people forced to work through the night. Speaking to the Independent, he said “I have not got any comment to make on our work patterns. Do people in investment banking sometimes work long hours? Yes they do.”
Also in the Independent:
FinanceInterns, a careers advice group, condemned the City’s long-hours culture. A spokesperson said: “Young people who jubilantly accept a summer internship thinking they’ve landed a chance at their dream job, find themselves declaring that, what should have been a summer full of hope, is in fact the ‘worst three months’ of their lives due to the exhausting combination of all-nighters, weekend work and the magic roundabout.
“In the toughest job-market experienced in recent times, competition is even higher. Consequently these talented, diligent, young people are ever more willing to work hours which more senior staff would not.”
This comes on the back of a landmark study of two million people by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) last year which confirmed shift work, particularly nights, resulted in a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. The study found that compared to regular daytime hours workers, shift workers had a 23% higher chance of suffering a heart attack and 5% higher of having a stroke. For night time workers, the odds of a heart attack shot up 41%.
As unemployment and underemployment reach record levels in the UK, ever more people are driven to tolerate exploitative labour conditions to meet a cost of living rising four times the rate of wages. But UK workers are not alone.
Taking our Lead from Asia
It was Japan that coined the term Karoshi: Death from Overwork. This term is officially recognised by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare – and such deaths rose from 4 compensated cases in 1997 to 121 in 2011.
The International Labour Organisation lists the following examples of Karoshi:
- Mr A worked at a major snack food processing company for as long as 110 hours a week (not a month) and died from heart attack at the age of 34. His death was approved as work-related by the Labour Standards Office.
- Mr B, a bus driver, whose death was also approved as work-related, worked more than 3,000 hours a year. He did not have a day off in the 15 days before he had stroke at the age of 37.
- Mr C worked in a large printing company in Tokyo for 4,320 hours a year including night work and died from stroke at the age of 58. His widow received a workers’ compensation 14 years after her husband’s death.
- Ms D, a 22 year-old nurse, died from a heart attack after 34 hours’ continuous duty five times a month.
China is also seeing a spate of worker deaths as a result of overwork. Just a month ago, a 23 year old in Anqing died suddenly after working a 12 hour shift. 24 year old advertising executive Li Yuan died of a sudden heart attack at work in his Beijing office months earlier. He had worked overtime until 11pm each day for a month by the time he fell to the office floor at around 5pm on May 14th this year. These deaths came after promises that lessons had been learned from the 2011 death of 25 year old Price Waterhouse Cooper auditor, Angela Pan after working 120 hour weeks. It seems the only lesson learned is that there is a waiting pool of young people to exploit when you overwork the current cohort to death.
- Hsu Shao-pin, 29, an engineer at Nanya Technology, who worked 99 hours of overtime monthly, six months before he died. His parents found him slumped over his desk at home in 2010. He had died from a heart attack.
- Chiang Ding-kuo, 29, a security guard for Chien Hsiang Security Service, suffered a stroke while working in 2010. In the nine years before he died, he worked 288 to 300 hours a month.
- Hsieh Ming-hung, 30, an engineer for smartphone maker HTC, died in his dormitory in February. He worked an average of 68 hours of overtime monthly.
In all cases, the Karoshi deaths have risen exponentially in times of financial crisis, as workers are required to work excruciating hours often for reduced wages, in order to retain their jobs – which become highly coveted in times of job insecurity and high unemployment.
What Price Profit?
One of the rallying cries of neoliberal capitalism has been the opportunity to live a dream; to afford a lifestyle of comfort and consumer perks consummate with your talents and effort. This system is sold as a meritocracy, where hard work and skill are rewarded. In reality, it exploits the labour and talents of the many, for the profits and perks of the few – with little reflection of skill or effort in the reward systems. Generations of manual workers across Latin America, South East Asia, Africa and the Indian sub continents have endured and died in exploitative sweat shop conditions. But now, these same life-limiting exploitative conditions have caught up with the white collar office workers across the world. If the price of higher profits for the 1%, is a higher mortality rate for the 99% – exactly what are we queuing up to die for?
Join the 38 Degrees Campaign against Zero Hours contracts in the UK which force workers into unreliable shift work without basic employment rights.
Join the Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops campaign to help end sweatshop labour across the world
Join the campaign for a Living Wage – help ensure working people receive wages that meet the cost of living so they can avoid working excessive hours to plug the gap.
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