The Korea Herald


Korea no longer a land of workaholics, study suggests

Share of Koreans working over 50 hours down 75% in 20 years

By Park Han-na

Published : Feb. 13, 2024 - 16:14

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Office workers commute to work in central Seoul. (Newsis) Office workers commute to work in central Seoul. (Newsis)


The proportion of South Koreans working more than 50 hours a week has sharply dropped over the past 20 years to be on par with the average for member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to a new report from a Korean business lobby group on Tuesday.

According to the Korea Enterprises Federation, the number of wage earners working more than 50 hours per week stood at 2.53 million in terms of actual working hours and 2.24 million in terms of contractual working hours in 2022, accounting for 12 percent and 10.3 percent, respectively, of all wage-earning workers in the country.

This is a dramatic decline compared with data tallied in 2002, when those who worked 50 hours a week accounted for nearly half of the total labor force at 47.9 percent and 42.6 percent, in actual and contractual terms respectively, the report said.

Actual working hours refers to all hours in which an employee actually performed work and does not include paid or unpaid leave time. Contractual working hours are the agreed upon hours for the employer to provide and pay the employee.

The recent figures were just shy of the average of the 38 OECD members.

The gap between Korea and the OECD average in 2022 decreased from 35.6 percentage points in 2002 in actual working hours to 1.8 percentage points, and from 30.3 percentage points to 0.1 percentage points in contractual working hours.

Ha Sang-woo, head of economic research at the KEF, said it is time for the country to shift its policy paradigm.

“Efforts to further shorten working hours are still needed to improve the quality of workers’ lives, but the time for setting long working hours issues as a policy goal has already passed,” he said.

“Statistics on actual working hours and the proportion of workers working long hours both show that Korea is no longer a country with long working hours.”

The proportion of wage earners who logged over 60 hours per week in 2022 was only one-seventh that of 2002, the report added.

Kim Dae-jong, a business professor at Sejong University, pointed out that Korea still has among the highest total workloads, at 1,915 hours annually, now ranking fourth among OECD nations after Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile, while its workforce productivity per hour in 2022 stood at $49.40, placing it at No. 33.

"It is more important to discover ways to increase productivity than working hours for the country's economy to grow at the 3 to 4 percent level from the current 2 percent range," he said.

The report came as President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration is planning to draw up complementary measures for industries that need more flexibility in working hours, after it backpedaled on a proposal to raise the weekly cap to up to 69 hours from 52 hours last year.

As business groups complained that the cap of 52 hours was making it difficult to meet deadlines, the government pushed for raising the weekly cap on overtime, asserting that it would give workers more flexibility, longer vacations and a better work-life balance.

Young workers and some experts claimed that changes in the wage incentive system based on overtime and policies that guarantee longer vacations should be set before forcing them to work longer hours.

The KEF has been publishing similar labor data-based reports, calling for more flexibility in working hours for the economy to find room for growth.

In October last year, the business group found that the actual working hours a year per Korean worker decreased by approximately 500 hours, from 2,458 hours in 2001 to 1,904 hours in 2022.

Accordingly, the gap with the OECD average declined to 185 hours in 2022 from 700 hours in 2001, it said.

By Park Han-na (