A new international report has found that hundreds of thousands of workers are driven to their deaths every year due to overwork. This is the brutal logic of the capitalist system. The alternative is clear: socialism or barbarism.
A recent joint study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) reveals that hundreds of thousands of workers die every year due to long working hours.
The report shows that in 2016 alone, 745,000 workers died of stroke and heart disease due to working 55 hours per week or more.
The WHO/ILO report clearly links working longer hours with a decline in health and increasing likelihood of premature death. For example, the number of deaths from heart disease due to overwork rose by 42% between 2000 and 2016.
However, the true death toll of those worked to death under capitalism will be much higher. What about those – including undocumented workers – who develop cancers, die of exhaustion, and are even driven to suicide by the crushing pressures of the capitalist system?
In the words of Lenin, capitalism is horror without end.
Health vs wealth
Hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 – the vast majority being young people. At the same time, working hours have risen.
As redundancies increase, workloads have been passed onto those who remain employed. These extra hours lead to more stress, more pressure from bosses, and a higher chance of ill health or death.
But as the WHO/ILO study shows, the rise of overwork is a trend that existed long before the pandemic; and it will continue even when lockdown ends and society ‘returns to normal’.
The figures in the WHO/ILO report are graphically brought to life by the story of 45-year-old Jonathan Frostick. He suffered a heart attack just as he began his usual routine of unpaid overtime on a Sunday afternoon.
The HSBC worker felt a tightening in his chest and was having trouble breathing. Luckily his wife was able to call an ambulance and Jonathan did not join the hundreds of thousands of yearly deaths from overworking.
After this story went viral on LinkedIn, HSBC responded with a statement claiming they “recognise the importance of personal health and wellbeing and a good work-life balance”. The bank’s spokesperson boasted that the company would be “redoubling efforts on health and wellbeing”.
If HSBC really cared about the welfare of their workers, however, then they would use the billions of pounds they make year-on-year to hire more staff, in order to reduce hours and workloads.
But the bosses don’t value workers’ “health and wellbeing”. All they care about is their profits and the billions of pounds in their bank accounts.
The working day
Ultimately, the cold logic of the capitalist to maximise the working day stems from their need to extract as much surplus value from the worker as possible. As Marx pointed out:
“…the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between collective capital, i.e. the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e. the working class.” (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol 1, p344)
In other words, the class struggle is a struggle over time.
For decades, capitalists have sought to rollback the reforms won by the working class through past struggle – including reforms such as the 8-hour working day, paid overtime, and pensions.
As the crisis of capitalism deepens, the bosses are taking ever-more extreme steps to boost their profits. This means that the attacks on workers will no doubt ramp up as they attempt to maintain ‘business as usual’.
Under these pressures, workers are being physically and mentally stretched to breaking point. In turn, however, the bosses risk provoking a militant backlash from workers who are pushed to their personal limits.
Capitalism is a system built upon exploitation. It is the laws of capitalist competition, and the bosses’ insatiable thirst for profits, that is responsible for this race to the bottom in terms of workers’ conditions.
Yet the wealth clearly exists in society to provide a healthy, safe, and happy life for all. On the basis of a socialist plan of production, this wealth – alongside the latest technology – could be used to massively reduce the hours of the working day.
Instead of job losses and redundancies, work could be shared out, without any loss of pay. The working week could instantly be cut to 30 hours or less. And this could be reduced even further with investment in automation.
In this way, increases in productivity would be used to raise living standards for the vast majority, instead of boosting the fortunes of a super-rich elite.
Alleviated from the burden of work, the working class would have the leisure time to participate in the running of society and pursue creative activities, leading to a flourishing of genuine democracy, art, and culture.
This is the socialist vision that the labour movement must fight for.
Throughout the pandemic, workers have shown they’re ready to fight back – and that they can win. From bus drivers in Manchester to Hovis workers in Belfast: workers have demonstrated that militancy pays.
The whole labour movement must prepare for heightened class struggle in the period ahead. Armed with a fighting leadership, and organised around a socialist programme of action, workers can put an end to the scourge of overwork – by putting an end to the barbaric and brutal capitalist system.