Korea Not Ready for Reduced Workweek

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Korea Not Ready for Reduced Workweek

The debate over reducing statutory working hours in Korea is heating up as the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions continues to apply pressure on the government to reduce working hours from 44 hours a week to 40 hours a week with a 5-day workweek. With a full-scale strike planned for May 31, the government may be on the verge of accepting the proposal despite vocal opposition from the business sector. The government recently announced its plans to submit a proposal to revise related laws within the year.

Most of Korea agrees fundamentally to the reduction of working hours - it would boost quality of life and labor productivity through adequate rest and self-development. Actual working hours in Korea for the average worker is 47.9 hours a week, highest among OECD member countries and seventh in the world. Considering the fact that most advanced nations already use a five-day work week, reducing statutory working hours in Korea seems to be an inevitable move.

However, the timing of this move is questionabble. With rumors of a second economic crisis making rounds in the business sector, it would be erroneous to assume that the economy has fully recovered from the currency crisis.

Korea’s labor intensity and productivity are still much lower than those of advanced nations. It may be too early to introduce the shortened work week, which is employed in countries with atleast a $30,000 per capita income. Korea’s per capita income is a piddling $8,500. Domestic employers would avoid hiring regular full-timers if the reduced working hours raises salaries, the burden on companies is expected to rise 14.4 percent according to the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

It’s better to approach the issue with sufficient time and serious discussion based on the consideration stated above. In order to distribute the impact that the new system is expected to cause, it would be practical to introduce the reduced work week step by step, like it was introduced in Japan over a 10-year period. Moreover, it should be a voluntary decision depending on the special characteristics of the industry and the company. In addition, the effort to enlarge the system to include a plan to take Saturday off in every other week, or a flexible working hour system must be made prior to the revision to the laws. The implementation of the current system such as strengthening the relevant regulations in order to observe all the statutory holidays and strictly punishing the employers, who use the illicit methods to avoid paying for extra work hours, is a realistic improvement plan.

First, the labor union sectors must refrain from a full-scale strike in order to resolve the current issue step by step. Reduction of the workweek is not an issue to be resolved by a strike. A strike can be seen as a political offensive to employee extreme methods on the eve of the South-North summit.

The government must not deal with this issue as a stopgap measure in order to ease the urgent condition. It is important to establish the principle through a thorough discussion and analysis on the pervasive effect on our economy and to negotiate with a long-term view. Furthermore, the business sector must show the compromising attitude to consider both the quality of life and labor, rather than driving the situation to completion.

by Hong Hye-gul

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