Shorter work week comes with conflict

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Shorter work week comes with conflict

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Office workers toil in a building in Seoul late at night. The amount of extra hours is expected to significantly drop if a bill proposed by Saenuri Representative Kim Sung-tae passes the legislature. [JoongAng Ilbo]

A big confrontation looms between Korea’s workers and companies over legislation requiring substantial work-hour reductions.

Companies want to cut payrolls when work hours are reduced, and unions are apoplectic at the idea, considering it nonsensical and offensive.

“Many workers will not accept it if their salaries are cut, and that obviously will expand the labor-management conflict across many Korean companies,” said an official of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, one of the country’s two biggest umbrella union groups.

The conflict arose earlier this month when the government and the ruling Saenuri Party agreed to push forward the passing of a bill reducing maximum weekly work shifts from the current 68 hours to 52.

Current Korean labor law stipulates workers can work a maximum of 68 hours per week. Apart from the 40 hours standard weekday work (eight hours per day, Monday to Friday), they are subject to up to 12 hours of so-called extension work and up to 16 hours of holiday work. The new bill combines extension and holiday work and limits the extra hours to 12 per week.

The bill, proposed in May by Kim Sung-tae, the Saenuri Party’s representative on the National Assembly’s Environment and Labor Committee, came in response to growing embarrassment among Koreans that they work longer hours per year than any country but Mexico.

Similar bills have been proposed by several other lawmakers this year, including from the labor-friendly opposition Democratic Party, and expectations are high that a bill will be passed during the National Assembly regular session this year.

The Saenuri bill, proposed by Kim, aims to enforce the change beginning in 2016 in workplaces of 300 or more employees. In 2017, companies with 30 to 300 employees will be included, and in 2018, all companies will be covered.

“This will help abolish the time-honored practice of working long hours and will enhance the quality of life for the laborers and raise their productivity,” said the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, another umbrella union group. “It will also assist the government’s goal of creating jobs.”

Labor’s endorsement of such legislation, however, does not include salary cuts, labor groups say. They said if companies cut salaries, the new law would diminish worker’s quality of life.

Business lobbyist groups dispute that idea.

“The management community wants to make sure that an artificial curtailing of work hours precludes massive damage to our businesses and the national economy,” said the Korea Employers Federation (KEF) in a statement.

The KEF said the law would take away what it calls the only means with which companies can respond to fluctuations in the economy - overtime work - and thus significantly limit the flexibility of their labor policies.

It also said that working hours in Korea have fallen continuously over the years. According to data from Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Employment and Labor, the average weekly shift last year at companies with five employees or more was 41.4 hours, a record low since statistics were first measured in 1999. Weekly work hours dropped significantly when the country introduced the five-day work week in July 2005.

“Korea’s labor market is not as flexible as that of the U.S.,” said a KEF official. “Here, it is not easy to fire a worker once you hire him.”

Business groups are claiming that small and midsize entrepreneurs (SMEs) will be the biggest victims of the new law.

SMEs in Korea have difficulty finding people willing to take jobs at smaller companies, which often come with less security and smaller salaries. So they’re forced to make their employees work overtime to maintain productivity.

“Here we ask a fundamental question,” said Kim Eun-ki, a KCTU official. “Isn’t it normal to work eight hours a day, for five days, and live decently?”

BY MOON GWANG-LIP [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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