52-hour workweek offers little relief for many

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52-hour workweek offers little relief for many

The 52-hour workweek has been met with mixed reactions during the first month since its implementation.

Although many offices have followed the new regulations, there are places where overworking is prevalent.

Mr. Jang, an office worker at a financial firm, goes to work at 8 a.m. and leaves at 8 p.m. Even with two hours for lunch and dinner, Jang works 10 hours every day, sometimes more. He regularly works over 52 hours a week.

“I can’t focus on doing my work until after I’ve worked at the transaction window until 4 p.m.,” said Jang. “Everyone’s so busy that most people have to skip dinner. And since we’re still in the grace period for the 52-hour workweek where employers aren’t penalized, the company isn’t doing anything about it.”

Those working sales jobs feel a particularly low impact of the reduced workweek.

For Mr. Kim, who manages insurance planning at a sales office in Seoul, dinner is a continuation of business.

“Even if it’s just for a 50,000 won [$44.64] per month contract, I would still definitely go if a client or insurance planner wants me to,” Kim said. “Since every contract directly affects the evaluation of the office, I can’t afford to take the 52-hour workweek into consideration.”

Mr. Park, who works for a construction company, has noticed his office struggling to enforce the new regulations.

“Two days ago, the company posted a notice saying that if we use our computers outside of work hours, it would count as overtime,” said Park. “It was because some of the bosses were having people do work outside of work hours and instructing them to flag it as ‘personal use.’ We’re also supposed to have 30 minute breaks in the morning and in the afternoon, which makes our work day longer, but we rarely get to actually rest during that time.”

Of course, some workplaces are actually sticking with just 52 hours of work per week.

“I get paid less because I no longer work overtime, but since my working hours end at 7 p.m. instead of around midnight, I can spend more time with my family,” said Mr. Hong, who works at an electronics company. The lights in his office turn off promptly at quitting time.

“My workplace is changing the system in an attempt to keep people from working over the workweek limit,” said Mr. Hwang, an employee at a construction company. “There’s been some positive changes - for example, if a worker looks like he’s going to go over the working hour limit, he’ll be ordered to take a break.”

As the number of social gatherings has decreased due to work hours ending earlier, restaurants frequented by office workers are suffering.

“Sales for last month were down 20 percent from the month before,” said Byun Do-yoon, who runs a restaurant in Jongno District, central Seoul. “The restaurant used to be open until 9 p.m., but I’ve been closing earlier because not as many people are coming for dinner.”

“We used to make between 1.5 million and 2 million won a day on weekdays, but now it’s only about 800,000,” said a restaurant owner surnamed Seo. “That doesn’t leave me with much after I pay the rent and my employees’ wages, so I’m considering closing down my business.”

Bus drivers have also become scarce in rural areas due to shorter working hours.

South Jeolla provincial government, in conjunction with the Mokpo branch of the Ministry of Employment and Labor, started a project to train 125 bus drivers. Only those with Type I licenses for large vehicles can qualify for bus driver license training. When training is finished, 50 drivers will be hired in Suncheon, 20 in Gwangyang and Naju, and 35 in Mokpo.

The provincial government estimates that another 1,039 bus drivers will be needed by 2021.

Many manufacturers feel that the flexible working hour system is not robust enough.

In May, the Ulsan Chamber of Commerce made a proposal to the Blue House and the Office for Government Policy Coordination to expand the flexible working hour period to six months or a year so that working hours can be used flexibly during non-business periods when there are not many peak and work hours.

“The fact that we are currently in the grace period for the 52 hour workweek, combined with the deep-rooted Korean culture of working long hours, are causing some confusion,” said Lee Byoung-hoon, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University. “Those in labor and management should work together and make efforts to change the existing corporate culture and business practices by bringing in more staff and flexibility.”

BY CHO HAN-DAE, OH WON-SEOK [ebusiness@joongang.co.kr]
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