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Biopharma industry seeks leniency in Korea’s '52-hour workweek' policy

South Korea’s biopharmaceutical industry is seeking leniency in implementing the country’s revised labor law that mandates companies with 300 or more employees to reduce maximum weekly work hours to 52 hours per week, from the current 68 hours.

As the law is set to take effect from July 1, with a six-month grace period, Korea’s big biopharma companies are hoping to work around the new limit by asking the government to permit wider leniency in introducing flexible work hours for the industry, whose research and development and production often operate on an irregular timetable.

The Korea Pharmaceutical and Bio-Pharma Manufacturers Association, the country’s biggest pharma industry trade union, said Monday that it is working with members to request the government review some of the “realistic restrictions” the industry is expected to face by implementing the strict maximum work hour policy.

“It’s going to be difficult to obtain the ‘special industry designation’ that exempts the industry from the new 52-hour law. Given this, we’re reviewing ways to seek for ways to potentially introduce wider application of flexible work hours that meet the reality,” a KPBMA spokesperson told The Korea Herald.

With flexible work hours, an employee who works past the 52-hour limit in a week would work less the following week. Currently, such work hour adjustments are only allowed for a time frame of between one and three months. The association said it would seek for the time frame to be extended to between six months to a year.


Initiated by President Moon Jae-in, the government’s 52-hour workweek policy aims to improve labor conditions in Asia’s most overworked country, but it has sparked heated debate and confusion in many industries. Scurrying to figure out how to control the hours and draw the line between work and nonwork activities, many businesses have been expressing concerns that it could hurt their competitiveness.

Pharma has been one such sector, with the biggest area of concern being how to implement this work hour cap in the R&D segment, which forms a pivotal portion of the science-focused industry.

Pharma R&D often requires rigorous concentration and a specialized workforce of highly trained life sciences professionals who cannot be easily replaced simply by hiring extra help, according to the KPBMA.

Moreover, R&D personnel pursuing time-sensitive tasks like new drug development and clinical trial initiation often work in project teams in phases based on a deadline. And in such periods, overtime work is often inevitable, it explained.

Production is another area where hours can potentially change, depending on seasonal hikes in demand for certain medications, or unexpected changes in clinical trial timetables. There may be periods when production demands are higher, requiring extra hours of work.

Companies are also fearful that less hours of work could mean downsizing their production, in addition to how to measure marketing-related works often conducted in the evening and other academic conferences and seminars that they attend, which are often held outside regular work hours.

“On top of work, there is also much travel and down time involved in these roles. Given this, it’s going to be difficult to reach an agreement with the labor union on the method of calculating the work hours,” said the KPBMA.

In February, Korea’s National Assembly revised the Labor Standards Act to reduce weekly work hours to 52 hours a week, portending a landmark change to the country’s labor environment.

Violators of the revised labor law are subject to a jail term of up to two years or fines of up to 20 million won ($18,090).

Right now, just five industries are designated as “special industries” exempt from the work hour limit rule -- land transport, sea transport, air transport as well as other transport services and the health care service sectors.

By Sohn Ji-young (