[Editorial] End confusion about workweek revamp

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[Editorial] End confusion about workweek revamp

The confusion over the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s plan to revamp the 52-hour workweek is deepening. On March 6, the Ministry of Employment and Labor announced it would enact a more flexible application of the rigid work guidelines set by the Moon Jae-in administration. The revision would allow employers to extend workhours on a monthly, quarterly, bi-yearly and annual basis instead of the uniform weekly basis while respecting the basic framework of the 52-hour system.

The government stressed that workers can work up to 69 hours per week when there are lots of work to do while they can take a rest when there is less work. But the change was perceived by the young generation simply as an extension of their work to a maximum 69 hours per week. Given Korean workers’ infamous reluctance to use their annual paid leave for fear of losing their jobs, many of them wondered if the touted “month-long vacation” will really be possible from now.

After President Yoon ordered the labor minister to complement the revision, the ministry hurriedly came up with a new guideline on “working less than 60 hours per week.” How could government policies change overnight? The development suggests communication problems between the presidential office and the ministry. Such confusion is not the first time, as it occurred when the president said the minister’s announcement was not an official position of his government.

Determining workhours based on a weekly system has long been criticized for its uniformity. The yardstick was not compatible with the global trend of protecting workers’ health through a flexible adaptation of workhours. The ministry can accommodate rational demands from worksites, but it must not shake the very foundation of the revision to the inelastic workweek.

The government must reflect if it really talked with stakeholders, including the young generation in particular. It started to canvass public opinion after the labor union of young workers expressed concerns about longer workhours. The government also should have gathered views of the established unions even though they refused to participate in the Economic, Social & Labor Council, a body under the president for social consensus. The government-proposed revision to the stringent 52-hour workweek can be implemented only when it passed the legislature.

Rationalization of workhours are only a part of labor reform. The government must strive to protect the really vulnerable class such as nonunionized workers, irregular workers and those from small and midsize companies.
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