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SMEs get relaxed 52-hour week

Gov’t agrees to grant a grace period when rule changes in Jan. 2020
Nov 19,2019
With just a little over a month left before the 52-hour workweek is applied to small- and medium-sized companies, the government said Monday it would implement a grace period to allow affected firms to prepare for the shorter hours.

The new workweek cap has applied to large companies with over 300 employees since July last year. It is scheduled to take effect on companies that have between 50 and 299 workers, which currently operate based on the 68-hour maximum, from the start of next year.

The government has faced mounting pressure to ease the rules from unprepared smaller firms as a bill intended to alleviate business concerns through a new work hour system remains adrift in the National Assembly amid disagreement between the ruling and opposition parties.

“In case the flexible work bill is not passed […], the government will take all available measures,” said Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jae-kap during a briefing at the Government Complex in Sejong. “We will provide an adequate grace period for companies with 50 to 299 employees.”

Lee did not specify the exact timetable for the period, during which businesses would not face punishment for violations, simply repeating that it would be “adequate.”

The government also stated that it would expand exceptions for increased work hours. Currently, such exceptions are only approved for natural disasters or accidents.

“There were many complaints that while it is possible to keep the 52-hour workweek during normal operations, it is difficult to manage during temporary increases to workloads,” said Lee. “We will expand the special work hour extensions for business management reasons such as spikes in the workload.”

The Labor Ministry has already approved special work hour extensions for companies affected by Japan’s trade restrictions in August under existing rules.

Companies focused on research and development (R&D) have voiced concerns that shorter hours will severely impact their business, which requires logging long hours.

Pressure on the government built up as it promised to support the R&D sector so that local companies would be able to develop high-tech industrial materials traditionally sourced from overseas suppliers amid Korea’s trade conflict with Japan.

Business lobbies welcomed the government announcement.

“We believe that the government swiftly responded to our proposals,” said the Korea Federation of SMEs, referring to its requests to President Moon Jae-in last month to ease the workweek hour rules. “We also anticipate active measures to postpone the implementation of the 52-hour workweek regulations.”

According to a survey by the lobbying group last month, 58.4 percent of respondents said the new rule’s implementation should be delayed.

Union groups expressed fierce opposition against the government announcement.

“The government has admitted today that it is incompetent in terms of the shorter work hour policy,” said the Federation of Korean Trade Unions in a statement.

“What the government needs is the will to implement and settle the policy down.”

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions said it plans to strike in protest of the government move.

The Labor Minister explained that the government would prepare specific measures by early next month in case the National Assembly fails to come to an agreement.

BY CHAE YUN-HWAN [chae.yunhwan@joongang.co.kr]