NATIONAL

Korea’s new birth rate policies raise eyebrows

By Claire Lee
  • Published : Aug 28, 2016 - 16:57
  • Updated : Aug 28, 2016 - 17:27
South Korea’s newly introduced measures to boost the country’s “critically low” fertility rate, including a campaign to urge workers to leave work without informing their bosses, are being questioned on their effectiveness.

The Welfare Ministry on Thursday announced its short-term emergency measures to combat the demographic crisis, including expanding state allowance for those seeking infertility treatment and raising paternity allowances for parents welcoming their second child.

In its effort to raise the total fertility rate from the current 1.24 babies per woman to 1.5 by 2020 -- which means at least 20,000 more babies must be born next year -- the ministry also urged the nation’s conglomerates to transform their work culture so that workers can spend more time with their spouses -- and eventually have more children.
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South Korea is notorious for its long work hours -- among the longest of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries -- as well as the binge drinking culture that is often considered a professional obligation.

In order to combat the problem and establish a more “family and marriage-friendly” work culture, the Welfare Ministry last week made a number of suggestions. The suggestions included allowing all workers to leave work on time “without saying ‘bye’ to one’s boss.”

Greeting and bidding farewell to one’s superiors and those older when coming to and leaving from the workplace is largely considered basic manners in Korea.

A government official, who wished to remain anonymous, said he has heard from many Korean workers who could not leave work on time because whenever they bid farewell to their boss, he or she would either give them more work or express displeasure.

“We think it’ll make it easier for many workers to leave work on time without having to worry about possible disadvantages they may face,” the official said.

Encouraging workers to leave work on time also has to do with working Koreans’ poor work-life balance, especially among women.

Statistics show that Korean men spend the least hours on domestic chores among all men in OECD countries. As of 2014, Korean women on average spent 3 hours and 25 minutes daily on household chores on weekdays, whereas men only spent 39 minutes, partly due to long work hours. Also as of 2014, only 4.45 percent of all Korean fathers took paternity leave.

Many men who choose not to take the leave fear career disadvantages, such as possible demotion, according to a report by the Korean Women’s Development Institute. Only 29.9 percent of all Korean employers have at least one worker who has used their parental leave, according to the same think tank.

Kim Ji-eun, a 33-year-old female professional in Seoul, said the government’s newly introduced measures are impractical and even “naive.” Kim, who works at one of the biggest local conglomerates, says workers at her company are not required to say bye to their boss when they leave work. However, the norm is that “no one should leave until their boss leaves.”

“Maybe these measures could work for civil servants, but not at big private firms,” she said.

“It’s not just about saying byes or not. It’s related to so many things, such as the workload -- I very often work on weekends because that’s the only way to finish projects on time -- as well as work hierarchy and politics that are so deeply linked in the professional world.”

Park Han-sub, a 30-year-old office worker in Seoul, said he does not really understand why the low fertility rate is considered a “crisis” by the government. Park, who is currently single, said he wants to get married someday, but wouldn’t mind living a childless life.

“Given our economy as well as the development of technology -- think about AlphaGo -- I assume there will be fewer quality jobs for the next generation. Considering this, I don’t think low birthrate is necessarily a bad thing,” he said, pointing to the fundamental outlook among the young that may be behind their reluctance to reproduce.

“The government keeps saying the current birthrate would reduce the economically productive population. But I think a significant portion of the next generation -- those who are ‘young and hence economically productive’ -- would be either unemployed or live with limited job security. I think the majority of young Koreans get this. But I don’t think the government does.”  

By Claire Lee (dyc@heraldcorp.com)