[OUTLOOK]Workweek plan needs flexibility

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[OUTLOOK]Workweek plan needs flexibility

Plagued by famine, the residents of a village stormed the house of a neighbor who raised pigs. The owner of the pigs faced the crowd with a gun to protect his animals. When the pigs, which the man greedily kept inside his house, became agitated by the gunshots, the owner became angry and kicked the pigs out the door and continued shooting.

There are times in our daily lives when we act like this pig owner, forgetting what our purpose is. As a result, we wind up paying material and psychological costs. When such a thing occurs on a national policy level, then the costs are higher.

The government recently proposed providing subsidies for small and mid-size businesses that implement the five-day workweek system earlier than scheduled. The government must re-evaluate its five-day workweek plan carefully and see if it isn't committing a mistake, like the pig owner.

With the early application of the five-day workweek, there are two types of burdens that a considerable number of small and mid-sized businesses will face. First, the gap between the working hours per week provided in the labor laws and the actual working hours will increase to more than 10. Not only does this mean a reduction of production is inevitable, it means additional costs to run the businesses over the working hour limit. Most of the discussions of the five-day workweek system have been focused on this first problem.

However, there is a second, less talked about but perhaps even more important burden with the new system. That is the burden that the businesses, the labor market and the public must shoulder when businesses get Saturdays off as legal days off, rather than getting them off as a result of decreased legal working hours. Other kinds of businesses, not to mention the manufacturing industry, sometimes need to work on weekends as well. Therefore, we need a flexible labor system in which businesses are allowed to run on whichever days they need to, weekdays and weekends included, provided that these businesses do so under a labor-management agreement and that the total hours worked do not exceed the legal limit.

We live in a highly competitive, consumer-oriented management society. A flexible labor system will enhance the competitiveness of our businesses and better meet the expectations of the consumers. Only by doing so will our businesses be able to survive and the jobs of our laborers become guaranteed. Flexibility will also persuade our businesses to not turn their eyes abroad for cheaper labor costs and encourage foreign businesses to come here, providing more jobs.

The most important reason often cited for why the current U.S. economy is doing better than the European one is the relative flexibility of the American labor market. Certain European countries have adopted measures to cut back the working hours so as to distribute the work among a greater number of laborers because the inflexibility of their labor markets hinder the creation of more jobs through economic growth.

It is a well-known fact that the results of such cutbacks have not been impressive. Once the labor market becomes infle-xible, it is extremely difficult to loosen it up again. We can easily learn that lesson by looking at the examples of European countries such as Germany.

Our national income has now reached a comfortable level. There is a social tendency to prefer working less and spending more time on leisure activities. A reduction of working hours is indeed inevitable. However, this is not something for the government to hurry, but a phenomenon that must be adjusted with appropriate speed through the agreement of management and labor along with the gradual process of closing the gap between the legal working hours limit and the actual average working hours.

The reduction of working hours would naturally lead to Saturdays becoming the days off, as in most advanced countries of the world, but it must not be forgotten that this is quite a different thing from designating Saturday as a legal day off.

The ultimate purpose of every national economic policy is to enhance the standard of living and the quality of life of an entire society. A system that was chosen to improve the quality of life of laborers should not, ironically, cause the removal of their jobs, leading to more unemployment. In this sense, any discussion of the general reduction of working hours, not to mention the implementation of the five-day workweek plan, should be carried out gradually according to labor-management agreements.


The writer is the chairman of the Institute for Global Economics.

by Sakong Il

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