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[Editorial] Reform of the 52-hour workweek

Yoon administration has to take steps to prevent abuse of the new workweek system

By Korea Herald

Published : March 9, 2023 - 05:30

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The Yoon Suk Yeol administration has put out a long-awaited reform plan to reconfigure the controversial 52-hour workweek regulation in South Korean workplaces.

The reform measure came in response to the growing complaints from companies which claim the 52-hour workweek system hinders their efforts to run work hours in a timely and flexible fashion to stay competitive on the global market.

The Yoon administration on Monday announced a plan to introduce a new workweek rule that would allow for up to 69 hours, while largely keeping the current 52-hour rule framework introduced by the liberal Moon Jae-in administration in 2018.

The key condition is that longer work hours would be compensated with extra holiday time later, which would certainly give more flexibility in the management of work hours to employers in need of intensive work when orders pile up and employees willing to have a longer vacation in return for their hard work.

But it remains to be seen whether the proposal to extend the maximum work hours would fix the issues with the current statutory workweek rule and benefit both employers and employees.

The basic rule -- 40 basic hours and 12 extended hours -- will be maintained, but the management and unions will be allowed to decide extra work hours on a monthly, quarterly, six-monthly or annual basis instead of the current weekly basis. This will lead to a maximum of 69 hours during peak season and 40 hours during the down season.

Under the new rule, workers can save their overtime and extended work days so that they can use them for a longer holiday later. The so-called “flexible work system,” which allows for workers to decide work hours and days, will be expanded from the current one month to three months for all industries and six months for the R&D sector.

A flexibility-focused workweek system will make it possible for employers and employees to create a new work style such as taking monthlong holidays or working a four-day workweek. This flexible work system is especially needed for companies in select sectors such as technology, entertainment and gaming, where intensive schedules are often required to handle a rush of orders or to meet a tight schedule to launch new products.

The advantage of stretching maximum work hours, however, should be carefully weighed against the possible side effects. The 52-hour workweek was initially introduced to enhance the quality of life and help relieve heavy burdens on workers in the tough labor market in Korea. Overwork has long been a chronic problem here. Korean workers’ average annual working hours were 1,915 in 2021, according to the data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The figure marked the fifth-longest among the 38 members of the OECD and 199 more hours above the OECD average of 1,716 hours.

There is a possibility that the new expanded workweek system will result in just longer work hours without proper compensation. The maximum 69 work hours per week translate into 13.8 hours per day based on a five-day workweek -- or working from 9 a.m. to midnight for five days in a row without violating the labor law. If the new system is abused, it is feared to pose highly unfair and challenging labor conditions for workers.

In a bid to secure a protection mechanism, the government said it would make sure that workers would be given 11 hours of uninterrupted rest time when the work hours hit the maximum, but whether such ideal practice can actually be implemented in workplaces remains to be seen.

In reality, a number of Korean workers have to forfeit their annual leave because they are required to work long hours to handle too many tasks. There are good companies which observe the workweek rules and offer proper compensation, but there are also bad companies skirting the regulations and refusing to offer longer holiday time, much less additional pay for extra work.

In particular, the government’s proposed protection system may not work in small workplaces, many of which are saddled with low pay and insecure employment conditions.

The Yoon administration has to work closely with all stakeholders, including the lawmakers from the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea and labor organizations, to address the critical problems of its proposed workweek revision and draw up stronger protection mechanisms for the welfare and health of workers.