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Are you working or not?

June 18,2018
이미지뷰
Employees work late into the night at a local office. That will have to change after the government cuts the legal weekly working hours to 52 hours from 68 hours. The new law goes into effect on July 1. [YONHAP]
이미지뷰
Lee Sang-eon
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

“When standing up, he (she) is chasing a story; when sitting down, writing a story; and when lying down, planning for another one.” This is the best compliment a reporter can get in Korea. Although exaggerated to some extent, there are many journalists who look as if they are working all the time, except when they are asleep. Reporters must be alert with whomever they meet and wherever they go on a lookout for stories. They must stay knowledgeable and search the internet for leads or ideas whenever they can.

In a newsroom, maximum work hours are meaningless. When the major earthquake hit Pohang, North Gyeongsang, last year, reporters were on site covering the damage for nearly 100 hours a week. Anyone covering a special event such as the presidential power abuse case, a special counsel probe, or the North Korea-U.S. summit in Singapore usually works more than 15 hours a day. Around-the-clock news requires reporters to fully devote themselves to their work except for when they need to rest.

From July 1, this changes. News media also comes under the legal 52 weekly hour cap. When workers exceed that limit, they must work fewer hours the following week. Otherwise, their corporate head will face a fine or other punitive actions. Journalists, whose life expectancy averages 72 — 10 years fewer than religious leaders and seven years shorter than politicians — should be thrilled to be freed from killer work hours. But many, including myself, worry whether work can be done under such a tight work schedule. It is no use complaining to government policymakers who simply advise them to change their working style or hire more people.

There are many professions that can hardly follow such rigid work guidelines, such as advertising, and media content development and production. Licensed professionals like lawyers and doctors are the same. In today’s industrial structure, a cap on work hours no longer matters as long as the outcome is ensured.

Policymakers point to the examples of Germany and France to justify their decision. France capped weekly work hours to 35 and Germany also cut back work hours to create more jobs. But lights rarely go out at research arms of aerospace companies like Tales Group and Airbus as well as utility firm Areva. German enterprises have been shortening work hours from mid-1990s for work-sharing, but the added jobs were mostly part-time. According to EU statistics, full-time jobs increased by 390,000 in Germany over ten years from 2000, while part-time work surged by 2.02 million.

But social security in Germany is incomparable to Korea’s. Schooling is entirely free. People can get along by working less than 20 hours a week on a temporary basis.

Korea’s salaried workers have to decide for themselves what is work and what is not. An ad producer must ask himself whether going to an art exhibition for inspiration is for work or simply self-motivation. A journalist must be able to decide whether he is dining with a government official after work for his assignment or to build up his connections. A salesperson must determine whether drinking a beer with a client is really necessary.

What older generations believed to be work-related may not be so anymore. In the context of the new law and systems, we may have wasted our energy and lives on things that little helped work or productivity.

One must ask oneself: Is this work or what? Companies also may pose the same question. Then you may have to say, “No, it’s not work,” without feeling guilt.

That could be for your company’s benefit, whether you like it or not.

JoongAng Sunday, April 16-17, Page 34