Seoul, South Korea
Shorter workweeks to improve employee mental health and productivity may be spreading in some places around the world, but at least one country appears to have missed the memo.
South Korea’s government was forced this week to rethink a plan that would have raised its cap on working hours to 69 per week, from the current limit of 52, after sparking a backlash among millennial workers and of Generation Z.
Workers in the East Asian economic powerhouse already face some of the longest hours in the world – ranking fourth behind Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile in 2021, according to the OECD – and death by overwork (“gwarosa”) is believed to kill dozens of people each year.
Yet the government had backed the plan to raise the cap following pressure from business groups seeking to boost productivity – until it faced fierce opposition from the younger generation and trade unions .
Principal Secretary to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said on Wednesday the government would take a new “direction” after listening to public opinion and said it was committed to protecting the rights and interests of workers in the Generation Y, Gen Z and non-union.
Raising the ceiling had been seen as a way to address the looming labor shortage the country is facing due to its declining fertility rate, which is the lowest in the world, and its ageing population.
But the move was widely dismissed by critics who argued that tightening the screws on workers would only make matters worse; experts frequently cite the country’s demanding work culture and growing disillusionment among younger generations as key factors in its demographic problems.
It was only in 2018 that due to popular demand, the country lowered the limit from 68 hours per week to the current 52 – a decision which at the time received overwhelming support in the National Assembly.
Current law limits the working week to 40 hours plus up to 12 hours paid overtime – although in reality, critics say, many workers find themselves under pressure to work longer.
“The proposal makes no sense…and is so far from what the workers actually want,” said Jung Junsik, 25, a university student from the capital Seoul, who added that even with the government’s U-turn , many workers would still be under pressure. working beyond the legal maximum.
“My own father works excessively every week and there is no boundary between work and life,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is quite common in the world of work. Labor inspectors cannot monitor all workplaces 24/7. The South Korean people (will remain) vulnerable to deadly overtime.
According to the OECD, South Koreans worked an average of 1,915 hours in 2021, well above the OECD average of 1,716 and the US average of 1,767.
Long working hours – alongside high levels of education and an increase in the number of women entering the workforce – were once widely credited with fueling the country’s remarkable post-Korean War economic growth in the 1980s. 1950, when it went from a poor economy to one of the richest in the world. .
However, critics say the flip side of those long hours is clearly seen in the dozens of cases of “gwarosa” – “death from overwork” – in which exhausted people pay with their lives in heart attacks, industrial accidents or a sleep deprived driving.
Haein Shim, spokesperson for Seoul-based feminist group Haeil, said the country’s rapid growth and economic success had a cost and that the proposal to extend working hours reflected the government’s “reluctance to recognize the realities of South Korean society.
She said the “isolation and lack of community resulting from long working hours and intense working days” was already taking its toll on many workers and “insane working hours will further compound the challenges faced by women. Koreans”.
In addition to gwarosa cases, the country also has the highest suicide rate among developed countries, according to data from the National Statistics Office, she pointed out.
“It’s crucial that government (and business) address pressing issues that are already affecting lives,” Shim said. “The need for support and a healthy work-life balance cannot be overlooked if we are to ensure the well-being of individuals with the reality of the highest suicide rate in the OECD.”
In 2017, the year before the government reduced the cap on working hours, hundreds of people died from overwork, according to government data. Even when the limit was lowered to 52 hours, “gwarosa” cases continued to make headlines. In 2020, unions said 14 delivery workers died from overwork, having sacrificed their mental health and well-being to keep the country going at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.