Published : 2013-01-13 20:16
Updated : 2013-01-13 20:16
The transition team of President-elect Park Geun-hye is moving to shorten Korea’s notoriously long working hours in a bid to improve the quality of workers’ lives, promote job sharing and stimulate efforts to enhance productivity.
On the campaign trail, Park pledged a set of measures to reform the labor market. One key promise was to reduce Korea’s work hours to the OECD average by 2020.
In 2010, Korean workers put in 2,193 hours on average, more than 400 hours longer than the OECD average of 1,749 hours.
As a first step toward implementing Park’s promise, the transition team is planning to curb the corporate practice of forcing employees to work on weekends.
Under the current Labor Standards Act, working on weekends is not illegal. But the problem is that it says nothing about whether holiday work, including weekend work, should be counted as overtime work or not.
The government’s official stance on this matter has been that holiday work is not included in overtime work, whose legal limit is 12 hours a week.
This interpretation has allowed employers to extend their workweek up to 68 hours ― the standard 40 hours per week plus eight hours each on Saturday and Sunday and 12 hours in overtime work.
No wonder that Korea’s work hours are the longest among OECD countries.
According to reports, the presidential transition team will push to revise the law so that holiday work is included in calculating overtime in a week. This is the right step to take.
Amending the law won’t be difficult, given that the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition Democratic United Party both offered a similar proposal in the run-up to the general elections last April.
A more difficult task will be to ensure that the restriction on holiday work is strictly enforced. For this, it is necessary to mete out strong punishment to employers who ignore the overtime limit.
A recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Employment and Labor found that nine out of 10 companies exceeded the 12-hour weekly overtime ceiling.
To shorten working hours, another important measure is to reduce the scope of businesses that are not subject to the overtime rule.
The current law allows companies engaged in an array of businesses, including transportation, goods sales and storage, finance and insurance, communications, and hotel and restaurant, to extend overtime work beyond 12 hours a week.
According to government statistics, these businesses employ nearly 40 percent of the entire work force in Korea.
Work hours can also be shortened by revamping the shift system in place in many manufacturing industries, such as steelmaking and auto production.
Last week, Hyundai Motor started a two-week test run of its new shift system aimed at abolishing the graveyard shift and cutting working hours. The company plans to introduce the new shift pattern in March. Hyundai’s example needs to be emulated by other companies.
Long work hours are a legacy of the past. One reason they are still in place is that they benefit both employers and workers. They help employers reduce production costs while at the same time bringing fatter paychecks to workers.
But when seen from a long-term perspective, a long workweek ultimately backfires on them and, more importantly, does harm to the national economy.
Long hours at work are bad for workers’ health. They also make it difficult for them to balance work and life, which is one of the factors that deter female labor force participation and bring down the nation’s birth rate.
A shortened workweek would give workers time for self-development, promote job sharing and drive companies and workers to enhance productivity.
But in the initial period it could increase production costs and reduce wages. Therefore it would be wise to cut work hours on a gradual basis. The government should provide assistance to mitigate the burden on employers and employees.