The Korea Herald


Talks begin in Korea for easing 52-hour weekly work cap

By Kim Arin

Published : Nov. 13, 2023 - 18:23

    • Link copied

Vice Minister of Labor Lee Sung-hee speaks at a press briefing on Monday at the government complex building in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. (Yonhap) Vice Minister of Labor Lee Sung-hee speaks at a press briefing on Monday at the government complex building in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. (Yonhap)

South Korea is likely to begin a trilateral discussion on the 52-hour weekly work cap, with the government moving to resume talks as the labor umbrella union returns to the dialogue for the first time in five months.

The discussion will include the government's latest proposal on allowing exceptions to the legally set maximum of 52 hours of work per week.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor said Monday that employers may be given more flexibility in arranging the work schedules on a weekly basis to have employees work longer when needed and with compensation, allowing employees to take more time off work at other times. While the hour cap may fluctuate, the longest an employee can work is 60 hours a week.

Based on the ministry’s proposal unveiled the same day, leniency in the working hour regulations will be granted to certain industries such as manufacturing, where many work on a shift-based schedule.

The ministry cited the results of its survey of 6,030 South Koreans taken from June to August as grounds for the proposed changes to the 52-hour workweek, which was introduced in phases from July 2018 during the preceding Moon Jae-in administration. Businesses with fewer than five employees are exempt from the working hour cap.

Among the 6,030 surveyed by the ministry, which consisted of 3,839 employees, 976 employers and 1,215 individuals from the non-working population, more than half said they believed the legal limit on working hours didn’t reflect the different demands of specific fields or industries.

According to the ministry, 54 percent of those surveyed said that the 52-hour cap inhibited flexible arrangements while 48 percent said it helped prevent long working hours. More specifically, the ministry said 41 percent of employees, 38 percent of employers and 46 percent of the non-working population agreed with allowing overtime on top of the 52 full hours.

The majority of those surveyed -- 75 percent of employees and 74 percent of employers -- said 60 hours was desirable as the maximum permitted limit per week.

The ministry is launching a time-tracking application that will let employees clock in and out of work and ensure they don’t exceed the net maximum working time each week.

It is uncertain at this point if the Labor Ministry plan will be able to proceed as proposed.

The ministry plan also provoked strong protests from labor unions, including the country’s main umbrella union, the Federation of Korean Trade Union, and the opposition parties.

Following Monday’s announcement, the FKTU in a statement urged more efforts from the government to reach a “society-wide consensus” on acceptable working hours and “return to the dialogue” while the Democratic Party of Korea spokesperson Rep. Yoon Yeong-deok said the plan was a result of “the administration’s toxic perspective on working conditions.”

The Yoon Suk Yeol presidential office said in response that any changes to labor standards would need to be preceded by an open dialogue with working South Koreans as well as business owners across the country.

South Korea has notoriously high working hours compared to similar economies.

In 2022, South Korea once again worked some of the longest hours among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, with 17.5 percent of workers having worked 48 hours or longer a week.

According to a poll conducted last month by the FKTU, out of the 1,000 surveyed men and women ages 18 to 59 years, about 60 percent said they were concerned about working hours being expanded beyond 52 hours a week.