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Overtime still seen as sign of diligence in Korea

For 26-year-old office worker Lee Hye-ri, it seems like a far-fetched dream to exercise and enjoy her hobbies after work every day. It is quite difficult to imagine life outside her workplace as she works as late as 11 p.m.

The newcomer, who was employed by a state-run company last year, often works overtime and sometimes works at home on weekends. She dozes off on the bus while commuting and sleeps a lot on weekends to fight a chronic lack of sleep.

“It has become a habit to work overtime. I might be able to finish my job during working hours if I focus, but I just think to myself, ‘Let’s just work overtime,’” she told The Korea Herald. “For workers, going back home in time is a special occasion and working late is part of everyday routine.”

Lee is one of many Korean workers who suffer from chronically long working hours in a society where overtime work is seen as a symbol of diligence.
According to a 2014 survey by the Labor Ministry on 1,300 workers on Korea’s work culture, only 26.5 percent of laborers left work on time five days a week. Among those who could not leave the office in time, 35.1 percent cited the nature of their job as the reason behind their long working hours, followed by company culture taking overtime work for granted at 25.8 percent and low productivity during working hours at 20.9 percent. Some 10 percent of them could not leave work because they felt pressured, while 6.4 percent cited a heavy workload.

South Koreans including salaried employees, self-employed and part-timers worked 2,124 hours in 2014, the second-longest hours among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, according to OECD statistics. It marks 354 hours longer than the average for OECD countries, which stands at 1,770 hours per year.

To root out the practice of working long hours in Korea, Rep. Lee Chan-yeol of The Minjoo Party of Korea submitted a package of revisions to the existing labor acts to reduce working hours, on May 30 upon the opening of the 20th National Assembly.

The bill -- dubbed the “kal-twegeun bill, referring to leaving on time from work -- includes imposing financial penalties on companies who violate legally-mandated working hours and making it mandatory for companies to record when workers come to work and leave work.

“We welcome the symbolic bill. We expect the bill to tackle the prevalent overtime work culture in the country and create significantly more jobs,” said Lee Joon-young, spokesperson for the Federation of Korea Trade Unions. “Once the bill is passed, it would take time for small and medium-sized companies to root out overtime work, but the bill will certainly affect larger companies and their employees.”

The long working hours cause health problems for laborers, which is linked to low labor productivity, the level of output for every hour of work, an expert said.

“Many studies have shown that laborers working more than 50 hours a week are more likely to be exposed to work-related accidents and cardiovascular diseases because they grow more stressed and fatigued,” said Lee Hye-eun, a professor for occupational and environmental medicine at Catholic University of Korea.

“Long working hours create a social structure which disrupts work-family balance and makes it hard for workers to exercise, take care of their health and relieve stress. That seems to be linked to low productivity of workers in Korea.”

According to the OECD data, South Koreans’ labor productivity, GDP per hour worked, was $31.2 per hour in 2014, much lower than the OECD average of $45.9. It is a stark comparison with Germany, where laborers worked for 1,371 hours per year, but with productivity scores of $58.9 per hour. 

Behind the culture of working overtime, Kim Jong-jin, a researcher from the Korea Labor & Society Institute, pointed to a social structure exploiting laborers for low wage.

“Companies can save costs such as training fees and severance pay by making their skilled employees work overtime rather than hire and train another staff member,” he said. “For laborers, as they receive low wages without sufficient social safety nets, they are forced to work overtime to take home more money.”

Park Hye-young, a labor attorney for the nongovernmental group Solidarity for Workers’ Health, cited the country’s rapid industrialization and economic growth.

“As the country was lifted out of poverty so rapidly, the society has justified long working hours and wrongful labor practices to achieve economic growth at the expense of laborers,” she said. “And laborers have become accepting of it.”

Park views the bill as a crucial step to trigger the public debate on long working hours in Korea, but questions remain on whether it can be properly enforced.

“Even the legally-binding minimum wage is not respected at all the workplaces in Korea despite existence of the relevant act,” she said, addressing the need for the government’s “will” to slash working hours for Koreans.

“The Labor Ministry’s administrative measures such as stepped-up monitoring and crackdown should come in line with the passage of the bill to change the practice.”

By Ock Hyun-ju  (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.ccom)
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