NATIONAL

Will Korea’s culture of overwork in game industry change?

By Bak Se-hwan
  • Published : Jan 9, 2018 - 16:48
  • Updated : Jan 9, 2018 - 20:27

When President Moon Jae-in promised the “right to rest” by slashing work hours, the word seemed to hold out little hope -- at least in the gaming industry.

Employees work late into the night. Yonhap

For Koreans, who work the second-longest hours among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, work is often taken to extremes. Those long hours wear on workers like 29-year-old Kim, who only wished to be identified by his surname and who works at one of the leading mobile game companies here.

“So many software and game developers are putting in long hours, especially during a time of high competition against China in the game industry,” Kim told The Korea Herald. Kim said he works an average of nearly 60 hours or more during weekdays. And more often than not, Kim works weekends, too.

“The law does little to protect employees who overwork, and the situation is similar -- or even worse -- in other gaming companies, too. And we never receive the overtime wages we are owed. It’s the dark side of society where esports gain such popularity that professional gamers and YouTube streamers receive enormous tournament prizes and fame,” Kim said.

The Labor Standards Act currently limits work to 52 hours a week -- 40 hours of regular work and 12 hours of overtime. But as the Labor Ministry has interpreted “the week” as excluding Saturday and Sunday, the legal limit is stretched to 68 hours in reality -- with 16 hours more on the weekend.

The widespread practice of overworking especially in the gaming industry even led to the popularity of the term “crunch mode,” which refers to employees putting in great number of hours ahead of the release of a game, sometimes not going home for over a week.

“The game industry has increasingly been focusing on mobile-based platforms, shortening games’ development period,” said Kim Young-seon, a senior researcher at a working hours research institute.

“Due to this transition from the previous online-based platform for which it would normally take three to five years to release new games, companies now are pressured to develop them in less than two years, or even within months, to keep up with the rapidly changing trends for mobile game players,” Kim added.

In fact, the gaming industry’s average monthly working hours totaled 205 hours last year, according to the Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health. That is nearly 20 hours more than that of all industrial sectors.

Three deaths that occurred between July and December 2016 at one of the country’s top mobile game companies, Netmarble Games, have been attributed to overworking. One died of coronary arteriosclerosis, while another death was a suicide.

“The employee had been subject to irregular nighttime work and excess duty in the last 12 weeks before developing coronary arteriosclerosis,” said a report by the Korean Worker’s Compensation and Welfare Service committee.

“The employee had worked 78 hours a week during the last four weeks before developing symptoms, and 89 hours in the last seven weeks,” the report added, acknowledging his death as work-related and approving his family’s application for compensation.

Hope for change

The liberal Moon administration has called for greater efforts to push through a revision to the labor law, currently pending at the National Assembly, which would strictly limit maximum working hours to 52 hours a week, inclusive of weekends.

The revision is seen by the administration as key to creating over 800,000 new jobs in the public sector and increasing people’s quality of life.

In the face of growing criticism of heavy workloads, a small but growing number of game companies are also trying out the 40-hour work-week system and giving employees more autonomy in deciding their own schedules, although many question the feasibility of the plan.

NCsoft, the country’s top game developer, has introduced its “flexible working hours” policy that enables employees to come to work anytime between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. in 30-minute blocks, as long as the weekly minimum of 40 hours is fulfilled.

Under the policy, employees can change their hours depending on their work schedule.

Other competitors have adopted a similar policy in keeping with President Moon’s pledge to cut the country’s working hours to less than 1,800 hours -- from 2,069 hours as of 2016, according to the OECD -- while Netmarble Games, in its most notable move, announced a ban on working on off-days and work-related text messaging after work hours, following the deaths of its employees.

Experts say efforts to increase job satisfaction should be extended to small and medium-sized game companies as well as to large entities to reduce the heavy workload, now seen as the source of the country’s social problems, including low productivity.

“Labor productivity in South Korea is among the lowest (in the OECD) despite the country’s putting in long hours at the office,” said Kim Soo-jin, a senior consultant for the Korea Labor Foundation’s job innovation team.

“Shorter working hours are necessary for the sake of increasing leisure time and work productivity, while helping employees maintain concentration for longer,” Kim added.

By Bak Se-hwan (sh@heraldcorp.com)