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The Peninsula

Consequences of South Korea's New Shortened Workweek

Published July 3, 2018
Category: South Korea

By Jihyun Joung

Known for its “inhumanely long” workweek, South Korea ranks second place for the longest work hours among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) members. This work culture has widespread consequences in Korean society – the younger generation are increasingly straying away from marriage, and the country hit record-low birth rates in 2017, a fact that President Moon Jae-in attributed to the country’s work-life imbalance.

To tackle these problems, President Moon sought to revise the Labor Standards Act, reducing Korea’s maximum working hours from 68 hours to 52 hours a week for all companies with more than 300 employees, with smaller companies to follow in 2020 and 2021. Violating the new regulation could result in a two-year sentence or a fine of up to 20 million won ($17,900).

With this legal modification, Moon pledged to improve workers’ quality of life, create more jobs, and increase the birth rate. But while these seem like positive goals that anyone can get behind, the response to this new law is more mixed. In a recent survey by local employment portal site Job Korea, about half of respondents had a positive view of the change, with many saying that productivity would improve but also expressing concern about losing overtime pay. Despite divided opinions from the public towards a shortened working week, the National Assembly’s Environment & Labor Committee passed the reform bill on February 28, and it went into effect July 1.

Many workers may benefit from a shortened workweek. Prior to the reform bill, individuals barely had any time or energy after work. Today, they relish in having spare time for leisurely activities such as cooking, watching movies, or going to the gym. Others enjoy the cutback of mandatory company gatherings or meals, known as hwesik, which are normally held after work.

However, not everyone appreciates the newly passed law. For example, some workers claim they are suffering from loss of income, and that they are taken advantage of when their bosses technically log 52 work hours but make them work overtime without being paid. Likewise, businesses claim they will lose money and productivity after the implementation of the law. For example, in the past, they were able to send workers on business trips abroad to gain more profit and partnerships. With the reduced working hours prohibiting weekend or overnight business trips, companies are suffering.

Not only do workers essentially lose income, but also receive more stress at work. Cutting down on work hours does not necessarily mean that the workload diminishes. On the contrary, workers are faced with higher work intensity, as they are obliged to complete assignments within a shorter period of time. One smartphone developer told Chosun Ilbo, “we have to go home at 5:30 p.m. no matter what, but if we are assigned work after 4 p.m., it’s hard to accommodate the request on the same day. If we leave work on time, the boss gets on our case the following day about the lack of progress. What are we supposed to do?” This is the reason to why workers have been spotted hurriedly completing their work in cafes nearby their workplace long after work hours.

Believed to improve living conditions for workers, Moon’s work-life balance campaign has ironically aggravated the situation, and lawmakers have already introduced a six-month grace period for the rest of 2018 to allow companies to adjust to the change without incurring a fine. Nonetheless, it is too early to assume the success or failure of the amendment. Perhaps this campaign can bring about an abrupt change to the deep-rooted working culture of South Korea. Looking forward, it may simply be a matter of time for people to adjust to this sudden modification.

Jihyun Joung is an incoming Masters student in Economic and Political Development at Columbia University. She is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Photo from Pixabay.

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