Death by overwork: Dentsu fined just $6,050

Tokyo court rules ad giant made staff work beyond legal limits, after worker kills herself

Mrs Yukimi Takahashi, the mother of Dentsu employee Matsuri Takahashi, who committed suicide in 2015, said in a statement she hopes stiffer penalties can be imposed on a firm when its employee dies from overwork. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO • Japan's Dentsu Inc was fined just 500,000 yen (S$6,050) after a Tokyo court ruled it had made employees work overtime beyond legal limits - a case that followed a high-profile death from overwork at the advertising giant.

Labour practices at Dentsu, renowned for its hard-driving work culture, came under scrutiny after employee Matsuri Takahashi committed suicide in 2015 at the age of 24. The government later ruled she died of "karoshi" - literally "death by overwork".

The case prompted national soul-searching and helped spur government plans for sweeping reforms of labour laws. Even so, the problem of karoshi has once again been thrust into the spotlight this week, with public broadcaster NHK disclosing that a 31-year-old reporter died four years ago of overwork.

Prosecutors had charged Dentsu for making Ms Takahashi and three others work overtime, beyond limits agreed with the company's labour union, between October and December 2015. But current Japanese law allows only relatively small fines for breaches relating to overtime work.

"We are hoping for legislative change so that stiffer penalties can be imposed when a worker dies," Mrs Yukimi Takahashi, Ms Takahashi's mother, said in a statement after the ruling.

"Tragic cases like this are happening throughout Japan, across all industries and irrespective of whether firms are large or small," she added, noting the death of the NHK reporter.

Ms Takahashi, who worked 105 hours of overtime in October 2015, became depressed and jumped to her death from a company dormitory on Christmas Day. She left behind a trail of grievances on social media about her relentless working hours and boss' verbal abuse.

"We take this ruling very seriously, and extend our deepest apologies to stakeholders and the general public for the concern we have caused," Dentsu said in a statement, adding that CEO Toshihiro Yamamoto will take a 20 per cent pay cut for six months.

Japan had 191 deaths which the authorities have ruled as related to overwork in the past financial year - an increase of two over the previous year, the government said in an annual report yesterday.

NHK, which covered the Dentsu case and the problem of karoshi in Japanese society, said it had decided to disclose its own case to ensure thorough reform within the company.

The public broadcaster apologised yesterday to the parents of the reporter, Ms Miwa Sado, who had been covering political news in Tokyo. She was found dead in her bed in July 2013, reportedly clutching her mobile phone.

"My heart breaks at the thought that she may have wanted to call me" in her last moments, her mother told the Asahi daily.

Every year in Japan, long working hours are blamed for dozens of deaths due to strokes, heart attacks and suicides.

According to a government report on death from overwork released yesterday, there were 191 karoshi cases in the year ended March. The report also showed that 7.7 per cent of employees in Japan regularly log more than 20 hours of overtime a week.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2017, with the headline Death by overwork: Dentsu fined just $6,050. Subscribe