It was an expected conclusion that a parliamentary subcommittee ended three months of discussion on whether and how to reduce working hours with no concrete conclusion. Members of the subpanel under the National Assembly’s Environmental and Labor Committee failed to settle differences at their final session last week.
They agreed in principle to lower the maximum working time limit from the current 68 hours a week to 52 hours a week. But the gap between members from the ruling and opposition parties on detailed matters could not be narrowed.
Under a related law, an employee can work up to 28 hours of overtime ― 12 hours in extended labor on normal workdays and 16 hours on holidays ― in addition to 40 statutory hours of labor. Opposition lawmakers and labor representatives called for a change in the law to abolish holiday work, to be implemented immediately and simultaneously across all industrial sectors. Ruling party legislators and corporate officials argued that reduced working hours should be put into practice flexibly and gradually in consideration of the different conditions of individual enterprises and industries.
It seemed insensible at the outset for politicians absorbed in partisan interests themselves to assume roles to settle the sensitive labor-management issue. Furthermore, the parliamentary panel established in February made an unwise attempt to tie working time, over which neither trade unions nor corporate managers were ready to concede, to other matters in a bid to achieve a package deal.
The trend of shorter working hours has continued to spread among major nations, and Korea can no longer remain an exception. The average Korean employee worked 2,092 hours in 2012, the longest except for Turkey in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The figure was far above the OECD average of 1,705 hours.
While Korean companies need to reduce reliance on long working hours, due attention should be paid to the argument that an abrupt and deep cut in work time would seriously weaken their competitiveness, considering the country’s low labor productivity.
It may be hard for Korean companies to remain competitive if they are made to cut work time by 16 hours when their employees’ productivity remains at $29.70 per hour, compared to the OECD average of $44.60.
Introducing a more effective and efficient system of flexible schedules will be essential for maintaining or improving labor productivity and creating more jobs while cutting working hours.
With the parliamentary efforts falling apart to revise the relevant law by the end of this month, the presidential tripartite commission comprised of representatives from labor, management and the government is urged to undertake the task of settling the matter quickly to avoid unnecessary confusion and prolonged conflict.
It is a dereliction of duty for the commission to stand by and let politicians handle key labor issues.