[News in focus] Tellers’ breaks cause heartburn

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[News in focus] Tellers’ breaks cause heartburn

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Korean banks often see midday rushes of harried office workers who can’t spare any other time, so a proposal from a major banking union to close branches for lunch is drawing bitter complaints from consumer groups.

The Korean Financial Industry Union, an umbrella labor union of banks operating in Korea, proposed earlier this month that all banks close between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. to ensure employees have an hourlong lunch break. Bank workers are often forced to cut lunch hours short in shifts so they can continue to serve clients, the union said.

“The labor law stipulates that employees are entitled to have at least one hour of rest if they work more than 8 hours a day,” said Lee Jie-sup, a director at the Korean Financial Industry Union.

“Most companies used the required rest time as a lunch break,” he said, “but bank staff find it difficult to have an uninterrupted one hour lunchtime as long as banks keep operating and clients keep coming through.”

The association attended the first round of negotiations with management of major banks and the Korea Federation of Banks on April 12. They didn’t come to any major decision, as the first meeting was primarily dedicated to explaining a list of the labor union’s demands for this year.

The Moon Jae-in government appears to be on the side of the union, in line with the administration’s labor-friendly policies, including the minimum wage hike and cutting maximum weekly working hours.

The labor minister emphasized the importance of reducing working hours in the banking industry in a meeting with the heads of major banks on Thursday.

“Banks should take the lead in reducing labor time,” said Kim Young-joo, the labor minister, “And the effort should be translated into more opportunities for youth who want to work in the financial industry.”

Consumer rights organizations oppose the move because the midday closure will make it difficult for workers to get to the banks. Most bank branches are open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., when many people are at work.

“The closure during lunchtime is an absurd proposal,” said Cho Yeong-haeng, the chairman of the Korea Finance Consumer Federation. “The banking industry is a business that requires government licensing, which means it should also consider the public interest. If there is not enough time to have lunch, the solution should be increasing staff.”

Cho noted that even with digital banking, there are many tasks that can only be completed at brick-and-mortar locations, and said that older people often struggle with mobile banking.

Bank workers argued that their actual working day usually goes well past the bank’s closing time and that their request will ensure their welfare, as stipulated by law.

“In a survey we did four years ago, the average [daily] working hours was 11 hours,” said Lee of the union group. “Even after the bank closes, employees start another round of work to input daily transactions and check the amounts.”

The union pushed to move bank closing times from 4:30 to 4:00 p.m. 10 years ago to help employees it said were overworked.


BY PARK EUN-JEE [park.eunjee@joongang.co.kr]

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