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Mantra: Work for life, rather than live to work
You NuoChina Daily  Updated: 2005-03-26 05:45

When will we have "green" model workers?

The unfortunate problem of karoshi - the Japanese term for death due to overwork - has been rearing its ugly head in the increasingly market-driven, competition-laden Chinese society.

It would be absurd if the nation were busily planting additional trees and working towards cleaner air on the one hand, and continued to ignore the unhealthy aspects of its people's work lives on the other hand.

In any case, the traditional scholar's lifestyle of all work and no relaxation should no longer be held up as a virtue. The model workers of this new age should set an example of a good balance of work and life, just as good economic growth should be a proper combination of speed and quality.

The government should require all employers, especially those who hire those needed for their intellect, to take a crash course on how to protect their most valuable asset - their workers.

A couple of weeks ago at the 2005 annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), a deputy even went so far as to propose that China should enact a law to make employers pay compensation for every karoshi incident that occurs in workplaces.

The delegate was not just kicking up a fuss. Shortly before the NPC convened, there were reports about the deaths of two young faculty members at Tsinghua University, China's top engineering school. The scholars reportedly died due to exhaustion and stress from overwork.

Huang Xiyue, the NPC deputy who raised the karoshi-related proposal must sincerely understand the severity of the trend. He is a university professor from Chongqing, the largest city in southwestern China.

In the corporate setting, abrupt deaths, often due to a combination of exhaustion and physical illnesses, are becoming a more and more frequent occurrence.

In February, a 27-year-old employee fell to the ground during working overtime in his office at Dell (China). He was not able to stand again. Doctors later reported his death was caused by stomach cancer.

Just a few days ago, a woman journalist hosting a top show for a Yunnan television station, passed out in the newsroom there. She died the same day because of heart failure, although doctors said she was known to have a cardiovascular condition. She was only 30.

No matter how all these cases will eventually be recorded, there is little doubt that overwork was more or less a factor in the tragedies.

Evidence is tilting towards the view that karoshi is even present in schools before professionals enter the workplace.

At the end of last year, a report in the Chinese-language press revealed that Shanghai authorities found a strong tendency toward the problem among graduate engineering majors at area universities.

Such students have to spend long hours on toiling in their schools' big-ticket research projects while tending to all sorts of daily errands for their teachers, from online research to translation work, and even substituting for their teachers on some social occasions.

In the meantime, in Beijing's Zhongguancun area, where most of the city's universities and research institutes are clustered, the life expectancy of staff members has experienced a decline from a decade ago, from between 58 and 59 to between 53 and 54.

One may have further questions about these brief reports, as any thinking individual would. But how on earth these figures were drawn is one matter. How to define the value of life is another. What is the point if, when the economy is growing at an ever-faster speed, its engineers and scientists enjoy shorter and shorter lives to savour the fruits of their endeavours? 

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