New generations of Koreans want to change the notion of working in Korea
South Korea is considered one of the hardest working countries. The working hours are long and the weeks even longer, especially when compared to our own weeks.
After the Korean War ended, the country needed to rebuild itself, and hard work was the only way to achieve that.
Today South Korea has grown and in a few decades has become one of the OECD countries. However, hard work is always required.
Last March, the South Korean government proposed raising the current nationwide cap from 52 hours a week to 69 hours to improve work-life balance.
How would that work?
Current South Korean law allows for a 52-hour week, which is 40 hours of regular work plus 12 hours of overtime.
The country’s opposition Democratic Party introduced it while in power in 2018.
But in early March, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government said it wanted to allow people to work up to 69 hours a week.
For counting periods of one month or longer, up to 29 hours of overtime per week would be allowed, giving a total of 69 hours worked per week.
The proposal was to allow employers and workers to agree on whether to count overtime per week.
The law should be passed by the National Assembly, where Mr Yoon’s political opponents have a majority.
How was the reaction?
Opposition politicians reject the plan.
Democratic Party member Park Yong-jin described the policy as a “Shortcut to population extinction”.
But South Korea’s labor minister dismissed the criticism, saying the proposal “would only offer more choice”.
The move was welcomed by the country’s main business lobby groups, including the Korea Federation of Enterprises, which called it “necessary” but was heavily criticized by unions for neglecting workers’ rights.
“This makes it legal to work from 9 a.m. to midnight for five consecutive days.” This was announced by the Korean trade union federation in a statement.
The Influence of Youth
The South Korean government was forced to reconsider its plan after sparking a backlash from millennials and Gen Z workers.
Workers in the economic powerhouse of East Asia already face some of the longest hours in the world, and dozens of people die each year from overwork (“gwarosa”).
Still, the government had backed the plan to raise the cap after pressure from business groups looking to boost productivity – until it met fierce opposition from the younger generation and unions.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s chief secretary said the government will take a new “direction” after listening to public opinion, saying it is committed to protecting the rights and interests of working Gen Y, Gen Z and non-union activists obligated.
Why these protests?
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Koreans worked an average of 1,915 hours per year in 2021.
This is 199 hours more than the OECD average and the fifth highest value in the ranking.
According to a survey conducted by the South Korean government every five years, lack of time is a major problem for more than half of South Koreans (54.4%).
In the survey, 52.2% of respondents called for a reduction in working hours.
Currently, the weekly working time must not exceed 52 hours: 40 normal working hours plus 12 overtime hours per week. « Avant [cette
règle]”The presenteeism was much stronger”, explains Park.
“You couldn’t leave your chair until your superiors left. » The 2018 law also introduced company inspections and increased monitoring of violations.
In the current situation, Korean society is already difficult for young people, who are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile work and family life.
Many South Korean women decided they couldn’t have a family and a career at the same time and stayed with their jobs.
In 2022, South Korea’s fertility rate was 0.78, the lowest in the world.
For the past eight years, the birth rate has steadily declined, and in 2020 South Korea recorded more deaths than births for the first time. Last year there were 249,000 births and 372,800 deaths.
During protests against labor reform, young people claimed that removing the cap on weekly working hours would increase health risks, citing the country’s high suicide rate, stress problems and the Gwarosa phenomenon, or “death from overwork”.
Protesters also insisted it would negatively impact South Korea’s already low birth rate, but the government disagreed that there was a link.
Last year, the Korea Institute for Health and Welfare (KIihasa) surveyed 22,000 people about work-life balance. When asked how many hours they would like to work, the average respondent said 36.7 hours a week.
The study found that while older generations were happier working long hours, the younger respondents were, the less time they wanted to work. The generation has changed.