Shorter work week gains momentum

By Suk Gee-hyun
  • Published : Apr 9, 2014 - 21:01
  • Updated : Apr 9, 2014 - 21:01

The drive to shorten the work week to a maximum of 52 hours is gaining momentum, signaling a major change to the country’s notoriously long working hours.

Politicians and labor parties have built a consensus to slash the maximum number of work hours from 68 hours to 58 hours a week to improve people’s work-life balance and create more jobs.

The subcommittee of the National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee has so far made little progress on when and how to reduce the hours but the Supreme Court’s verdict on the government’s long-standing interpretation of work hours is expected to give a boost to the revision.

The subcommittee members reportedly have agreed that workers’ workloads must be reduced. On the government’s side, the reduction in work hours would help create more jobs and could ratchet up pressure on companies to improve productivity. For workers, shorter work hours would likely mean an improvement in quality of life.

“There are positive signs that the bill will be passed soon, although other back-up measures need to be solved for a soft-landing,” an official from the Ministry of Employment and Labor said.

The current maximum weekly workload is 68 hours ― the statutory 40 hour workweek, plus up to 12 hours of overtime on weekdays and 16 hours on the weekend.

The country’s excessive work loads and long working hours have led the government and laborers to push for the change.

According to a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, South Korea’s average weekly work hours were the longest among OECD countries in 2012. A separate report showed that Koreans worked an average of 2,092 hours annually, 420 hours more than the OECD average.

If the bill gets passed by the subcommittee, weekend work will be classified as extended work, making employers pay both overtime and holiday bonuses to workers.

Currently, the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s interpretation of the Labor Standard Act excludes weekend work from overtime, and this has helped South Korean businesses maintain their long work hours.

The chances are high that the Supreme Court will uphold a lower court’s ruling that weekend work is categorized as extended work, as early as this month.

Politicians are said to be rushing to legislate the bill, as public criticism could be aroused against the government if the ruling is made before the legislation.

Yet, ruling and opposition parties are still split on how the system will be introduced. The government believes the cut in work hours should be implemented in stages from 2016-2018 to avoid a spike in labor and overtime costs for small and mid-sized companies.

However, labor circles are demanding that the government enforce the law immediately, without a cut in wages.

“The National Assembly should take the lead in passing the law and provide solutions to current labor problems,” said Shin Seung-cheol, chairman of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions.

After holding hearings on Wednesday and Thursday, the subcommittee will report the discussed measures to the regular session of the National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee on April 15.

By Suk Gee-hyun (