South Korea’s 69-hour workweek plan canceled after youth backlash
Im, who spoke on the condition that only his last name be used because he was not authorized by his employer to speak publicly, is among millions of South Koreans in their 20s and 30s who have been exasperated by last week’s proposal President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration will raise the legal cap on weekly working hours to 69.
In a rare reversal of policy, the government will reconsider the plan after a vocal refusal from young adults. “The president considers work weeks longer than 60 hours unrealistic, even including overtime,” senior presidential adviser Ahn Sang-hoon told reporters on Thursday. “The government will listen more carefully to the opinions of MZ workers,” among others, he added, using the collective term commonly used in South Korea for millennials and those in Gen Z.
“I think it’s a positive sign that the president has taken a step back after listening to the younger generations,” said Kim Seol, leader of the Youth Community Union, a labor activist group that advocates better working conditions for young adults. “But it’s also proof that the president didn’t really think it through,” he said.
Yoon’s disapproval rating among South Koreans in their 20s and 30s rose to 66% and 79% respectively on March 10, four days after the government officially announced the 69-hour proposal, according to Gallup Korea. (Ratings were 57% and 62%, respectively, on March 3.) Disapproval ratings for other age groups during the same time period remained similar or declined.
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By law, the South Korean workweek is 40 hours with up to 12 hours of overtime per week, as long as the employer compensates workers with extra vacation or pay. In practice, overtime is often not paid, according to workers in their 20s and 30s who spoke to the Post. Employers push them to do leftover work from home in the evenings, they say, and in some cases accuse them of being ineffective in avoiding legal scrutiny during extended hours.
Daniel Kim, a 35-year-old who works in the medical industry as a researcher, said he once went through an eight-month period where he couldn’t get home until 10 p.m. Eighty-hour workweeks were not unheard of at his company, he said. His wife, who is employed by a pharmaceutical company and often works night shifts, was finishing work at home as he was interviewed for this story around 9 p.m. Wednesday.
South Koreans work an average of 1,915 hours a year, while Americans work 1,791 hours, according to the latest figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD average is 1,716 hours.
Neighboring Japan – which two decades ago had working hours above the OECD average and continues to take steps to overcome the problem of karoshi, or overwork deaths – last year, an average of 1,607 hours. Today, “working excessively long hours is frowned upon” in Japan, said Motohiro Morishima, professor of human resource management at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. South Korea should seek to increase productivity, not working hours, he said.
“If there is more work, [South Korean] employers should hire more people,” said Lee Jong-sun, a professor of labor relations at the Graduate School of Labor Studies at Korea University in Seoul. This way more jobs are created and overwork is reduced, he said.
But companies rarely do, he said, either because they don’t have the financial capacity or because it’s cheaper to ask existing employees to take over. “Hiring new people means more benefits, insurance and more wages,” Lee said. “It’s more expensive.”
Just 20 years ago, South Koreans had to work 5.5 days a week. On Saturday morning, the children went to school while the parents went to the office for half a day. It wasn’t until 2011 that the country fully embraced the five-day work week. Seven years later, the country capped the working week at 52 hours.
“Nobody wants to go back to longer weeks,” said Lee, 58, who remembers when he had to sacrifice attending family gatherings on Saturdays to go to work. Legalizing a 60-plus-hour workweek would send the country back in time, he said. “We have already felt the benefits of shorter weeks. Why would anyone want to go back?
Im, who works in the business, got married this year – and said a 69-hour working week would mean giving up his and his wife’s hope of having two children. “Who’s going to take care of the baby if mum and dad are at work all day?” he said. “It’s frustrating, but there’s not much I can do about it.” He expressed doubts that the world’s lowest birth rate of 0.78 in South Korea would improve under such a system.
Long hours are associated with low birth rates because they are “antithetical to caregiving and they make it difficult to conflict between work and caregiving,” said Rae Cooper, professor of gender relations and employment at the University of Sydney. “South Korea tops the list” of countries with long working hours, she said, adding, “It’s not a price to celebrate.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gakushuin University was in Kyoto, Japan. The university is in Tokyo. The article has been corrected.