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[Editorial] Fix 52-hour workweek

Policymakers must fix work hour limit following Supreme Court’s latest ruling

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 29, 2023 - 05:30

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The Supreme Court’s latest ruling on the 52-hour workweek system is expected to offer some relief to companies as well as workers in need of a more flexible allocation of work hours without violating related laws. But the dispute still lingers over possible side effects of the ruling, calling for remedy in labor policy.

The top court on Monday overturned some part of the lower courts’ rulings that found an owner of a flight cabin cleaning company in violation of the Labor Standards Act by forcing an employee to work beyond the limit set by the 52-hour workweek system.

The worker had worked for three straight days before getting a day off, a concentrated work pattern resulting in 21 work hours per day (13 hours of overtime plus eight regular work hours) on 109 occasions, which violated the Labor Standards Act, according to the lower courts’ rulings.

The country’s 52-hour workweek system allows for eight hours of work per day from Monday through Friday and an extra 12 hours and holds companies legally accountable for violations.

The Supreme Court returned the case to the lower court, holding a view that it is legal to adjust daily work hours if the total weekly work hours do not exceed 52 hours, a departure from the position of lower courts which had focused on the daily work-hour limit.

It is notable that the Supreme Court has ruled for the first time that overtime work should be calculated on a weekly basis -- rather than on a daily basis. This is in line with the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s labor reform policy which attempted early this year to make working hours more flexible.

In March, the government pushed for a new workweek rule in which longer work hours of up to 69 hours would be compensated with extra holiday time on a weekly, quarterly, six-monthly or annual basis. But the policy proposal sparked a wave of protests from workers and civic groups claiming it would lead to a 69-hour workweek. The government is yet to restart public discussions about changes to the current 52-hour workweek system.

There is no question that Korea’s rigid labor regulations need more flexibility, especially when companies face tight deadlines to handle big orders for their products. In the video game industry, the term “crunch mode” refers to long periods of compulsory overtime during the development of a game title. The latest ruling in favor of a weekly calculation could allow these firms to map out overnight work schedules more freely without worrying about violations.

But critics argue that the Supreme Court ruling means that companies in theory can legally force employees to work for 21 hours and 30 minutes on two days each before getting three days off, an extreme yet legal work schedule that could hurt workers’ health. They also worry that crunch mode will be more widely adopted across diverse industries.

The Ministry of Employment and Labor welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling and announced it would hurry up to change its administrative interpretation of the 52-workweek system that has been based on the daily limit of work hours.

But the government and the Labor Ministry must understand that the top court’s ruling does not necessarily present a desirable form of work schedules that can satisfy both employees and employers.

As critics point out, there could be side effects such as the introduction of a shorter minimum rest period. Labor groups say the labor law should be revised to ensure that workers get at least 11 hours of uninterrupted rest hours before starting a new workday.

The government and lawmakers must consider various options, including the revision of the Labor Standards Act to fix the work-hour limit. The key is to strike the right balance by making the workweek rule more flexible to enhance productivity without undermining the health of workers.