SEOUL, Oct. 20 (Korea Bizwire) – South Korean President Moon Jae-in said during a meeting with senior aides earlier this week that a ‘society where long working hours and overwork are the norm’ must end, while calling for support among lawmakers to pass new labor reforms.
Moon’s pledge comes on the heels of growing calls to change the prevalent culture of overwork in the country, demonstrated by a series of deaths of postmen in recent months, civil servants who work on average 51 hours in excess of the legal maximum working hours per month, according to data from Korea Post.
During a meeting at the presidential office on Thursday, Moon and OECD Secretary-General Jose Angel Gurria agreed there is an urgent need to address the issues of low birthrate and the aging population, calling them “very serious” problems facing South Korea, according to Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Park Soo-hyun in a press release.
It has been also reported that during the meeting, both acknowledged that South Korea’s focus on economic growth in the past may have negatively affected social polarization, while the latest OECD data places South Korea among the most overworked nations, falling just short of the top spot, with average annual working hours of 2,069 in 2016.
Against this backdrop, Moon’s promise to trim the maximum legal working hours from 68 per week to 52 is resonating with the public, particularly young people who are wary of working for small and medium enterprises due to the culture of working excessive hours despite record high youth unemployment rates.
Moon sounded resolute while speaking to his senior aides in a meeting this week as he said he is willing to amend administrative interpretation if the newly proposed labor law amendment, which is being currently deliberated at the National Assembly, fails to pass.
While acknowledging that it is a challenge that needs to be tackled by both the government and members of society together, Moon also called for leaders of both the business and labor sectors to come together and help create a sustainable economy and better quality of life by tackling the issue of overwork and helping workers compartmentalize work from home.
If the amendment to the current Labor Standards Act passes, the maximum legal working hours in South Korea will be slashed to 52 per week, which could help fight the deeply-entrenched culture of overwork across the country that has resulted in a number of deadly social issues, including increased drowsy driving among overworked bus drivers and a growing number of deaths among postmen due to overwork.
Despite overwhelming public support, however, some raise concerns over the economic prospects and feasibility of Moon’s push to slash the minimum legal working hours, particularly management in the business sector, citing an increased economic burden on their part in the form of additional holiday allowances and additional overtime pay.
According to data from the Korea Economic Research Institute, companies will be burdened with 12.3 trillion won in spending to maintain output at current levels after the minimum legal working hours are slashed to 52 per week.
In addition, a labor shortage of up to 266,000 jobs is projected, as a result of shorter minimum working hours.
One official from the Korea Employers Federation offers a fresh perspective.
“As of 2014, the labor productivity of South Korea was estimated to be only 68 percent of the OECD average. Without improving labor productivity, simply reducing working hours is bound to cause damage to businesses and the economy.”
The official also argued that it is imperative to encourage performance-based pay systems to raise productivity and give flexibility to companies and workers with working hours.
As both the incumbent and opposition parties agree on the need to cut down on the country’s working hours, many speculate the age of ‘52 working hours a week’ will soon become reality.
Hyunsu Yim (firstname.lastname@example.org)