In the heat of the welfare-enhancing policy exploration, at the earliest starting from next year, workers may have one more day off if a public holiday falls on Saturday or Sunday. There are 15 official public holidays in Korea at the moment, and each year 3-4 days on average fall on weekends with no compensatory days off given.
Under this system of “letting the chips fall where they may,” the actual number of holidays changes every year and having the full benefit of 15 holidays becomes quite unlikely. Finally, a new bill to address this situation is being seriously contemplated under the name of “alternative holidays,” as promised by one of the presidential platforms of the last election. Under this proposal, if the overlap happens on Saturday, the preceding Friday will be a holiday. If Sunday, then the following Monday will. Similar systems are adopted in many other countries.
As the opposition to this new system has been also strong since the idea was first floated in 2009, particularly from some business sectors fearing likely increases in the cost of production, the proposal is now taking a cautious, step-by-step approach. So, the new scheme will first apply only to Lunar New Year and Chuseok holidays as opposed to all national holidays. Also, it applies only to governmental agencies whose working days can be changed by a presidential decree without amending the underlying statute itself.
While private entities will have the discretion to follow the new rule or not, the expectation is that many of them will end up subscribing to it because oftentimes labor agreements and employment contracts incorporate the government’s holiday mutatis mutandis.
Obviously, the idea behind this proposal is to guarantee more rest for the hardworking people of Korea, in the hopes that a well-rested, refreshed workforce yields higher productivity. In fact, a 2011 ILO-commissioned research paper on the effects of working hours on productivity concludes that longer working hours tend to decrease manufacturing productivity. Not only that, the government is also expecting the new scheme to stimulate the domestic economy through increased consumer spending.
According to the OECD, Korea was ranked as the hardest-working nation in 2010 among 34 member countries with working hours of 2,193 hours per year ― 444 hours above the OECD average. In 2011, Korea took second place with 2,090 hours after Mexico, but still 312 hours more than average. Korea had been at the top of this category since 2000, a year when the country put in 2,512 hours, exceeding the average by 668 hours.
Korea’s dominance in this category has been gradually diluted since 2000 with the phased introduction of the no-work Saturday system, and in 2011 it was edged out to second place. Although Korea seems to be slowly moving away from this status, still the long working hours and rigid work ethic are those that define Korea. So, the proposed change will bring Korea closer to the average, at least statistically.
Anyone who knows Korean society, however, may say that the official reduction of working days does not necessarily lessen the intensity and pressure in the workplace as long as the hard-working environment persists.
Where overtime and weekend work is commonplace, the effect of the official reduction of working days may well be a drop in the bucket. To have a glimpse of the intensity of work during office hours, visit any bank in Korea. You can tell that the tellers have the fastest hands in the world, but they work until late into the evening even though the bank’s official closing time is 4 p.m.
As the proponents of the bill argue, rest does facilitate creative thinking ― but only if one is indeed free from work and shrill orders of the boss. To many of us who still have to work even on many weekends and answer office calls on holiday mornings, the new system would not mean that much. At the same time, in many occupations, new digital equipment has made physical presence in the office not so material anyway.
By Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at the School of Law at Hanyang University. Formerly he practiced law as an associate attorney with Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP. ― Ed.