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Korea shortens work week, but not all workers are happy

Mar 02,2018
Korean workers expressed mixed feelings toward the passage of a bill that aims to shorten work hours in the country, with some citing positive improvements in their work-life balance and others fearing wage cuts.

On Wednesday, the National Assembly passed a revision to the Labor Standards Act that calls for reducing the country’s maximum statutory work hours to 52 per week from the current 68.

Under the revision, the work week will be limited to 40 hours of standard time and up to 12 hours of overtime. Working on a holiday or weekend will count as overtime.

Employees of major companies and government workers have mostly welcomed the bill’s passage, saying they can now find a better balance to enjoy activities outside of work. Some large companies such as Shinsegae Group have already reduced work hours.

Shinsegae said workers are being encouraged to utilize their time more effectively, claiming reduced hours allow people to spend more time with their families and engage in other activities such as exercise. Such “off time” can help people be more productive at work and lead to gains for the company, according to the retail giant.

“I head to the gym every day after work these days,” said a 37-year-old Shinsegae employee who asked not to be named. “I now can have a normal life.”

According a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Koreans worked an average 2,069 hours in 2016, 305 more than the OECD average of 1,764.

Other major companies have followed suit, including LG Electronics and chipmaker SK Hynix, which have launched a pilot program that allows workers to work less than they did even before the passage of the bill.

A number of IT firms have also allowed their workers to choose flexible working hours, in line with efforts to provide more leisure time for employees. The system allows employees to choose their hours on a daily and weekly basis so that they can handle personal affairs such as looking after children, taking part in leisure activities or pursuing hobbies.

Meanwhile, employees at small and medium-sized companies have showed concern that curtailed hours may lead to reduced wages. They argue fewer hours may lead to reduced overtime pay, widening the gap between large and small companies.

“I think that my wage will probably be reduced by one third if my company adopts reduced work hours,” said Mr. Lee, a 54-year-old employee at a small welding business.

According to a report by the Korea Economic Research Institute, companies with between 30 and 299 employees are forecast to scale back hours 0.4 percent, while those with more than 300 will cut back about 0.9 percent.

Other workers have expressed concern that the change might impact work intensity since they will be required to maintain their previous level of productivity while putting in less time at work. They argue that a shorter week will not noticeably improve their general quality of life unless companies hire more employees.

For the most part, owners of enterprises have held negative views about the shortened work week and have not moved to increase their workforce.

A shorter work week was one of President Moon Jae-in’s key campaign pledges during the election last year. The aim, he said, was to help improve workers’ quality of life and create jobs.

To ease companies into the change, the revision will be applied in stages. The shorter week will apply first to companies with 300 or more workers on July 1. Companies with 50 to 299 workers will be subject to the new rule starting Jan. 1, 2020, and those with five to 49 workers will fall under the law on July 1, 2021.

The number of business categories exempt from work hour limits will reduce from 26 to five involving transportation services and health care.