Japanese restaurant pays more than $1mn in compensation for overworked employee suicide

© Yuya Shino
A Japanese pub operator has claimed responsibility for working one of its employees to death and has pledged to pay an unprecedented sum of money to her family while promising to keep an eye on the working hours of other employees.

The Watami Co. group, known for operating a chain of Japanese-style pubs across the country, has claimed responsibility for overworking 26-year-old Mina Mori, who killed herself in June 2008. The group has agreed to pay the victim’s family 133 million yen (almost $1.1 million) in compensation, the family’s lawyer, Kazunari Tamaki said at a news conference on Tuesday, according to The Japan Times.

The woman committed suicide only two months after she started working with the Watami Co. group. She often had to work 10-hour night shifts, and her overtime amounted to almost 140 hours a month in excess. In Japan the death of an employee is labeled as “work-related” if there are 80 excessive hours.

“My body hurts. I feel exhausted. I feel emotionally numb. I can’t move as fast as I want to. Please help me, somebody help me,” said a note that Mina left in May, a month before her suicide.

Apart from the payout, the company will have to publish details of the case and render an official apology to the family on its website within a year.

The compensation to be paid is about twice the usual amount since it includes a newly-introduced fee and unpaid overtime wages. Moreover, the consolation money also includes a sum to cover expenses for a work uniform.

"I regret that our corporate philosophy evolved and drove Ms. Mori into a corner. I am reflecting on my past remarks and attitude and will work hard to prevent a recurrence of death from overwork," the company’s founder and lawmaker, Miki Watanabe, said at the Japanese parliament’s upper house, reported Japanese newspaper The Mainichi.

During the press-conference which followed the settlement, Mori’s father, Tsuyoshi, 67, expressed his hope that their story could attract attention to workers stuck in the same situation. The company promised to make sure similar tragedies won’t happen again.

“If I could turn back time, I would do everything to stop her from joining Watami,” her mother, Yuko, 61, said.

Almost 800 of the Watami.Co.group employees who joined the company between fiscal 2008 and 2012 will receive 24,714 yen ($203) for unpaid overtime work. Around 1,000 workers who went to work between the fiscal years 2008 and 2015 will be paid 24,675 yen ($202).

In 2014 the government established legislation aimed at raising awareness of what the Japanese call “karoshi” which can be literally translated as “death from overwork,” with the first case having been registered as far back as 1969.

According to the new law, it is the authorities' duty to reduce the level of work stress and keep track of filed complaints. However, many cases still remain unreported.