Seoul, South Korea CNN
While shorter workweeks may be becoming more popular in some countries to improve employee mental health and productivity, at least one country seems to have forgotten the message.
After generating a backlash from millennials, and generation Z workers, the South Korean government had to reconsider a plan to increase its maximum working hours to 69 weeks per week.
The east Asian powerhouse economy is home to some of the most difficult work hours. According to the OECD, it ranks fourth in the world after Mexico, Costa Rica, and Chile. Overwork death ('gwarosa) is believed to kill hundreds of people each year.
The government supported the cap increase plan despite pressure from business groups looking to boost productivity. However, the government ran into fierce opposition from younger generations and labor unions.
South Korean President Yoon Seuk Yeol's top secretary stated Wednesday that the government would adopt a new direction after hearing public opinion. He said the government was committed to protecting workers of non-union age and the rights of millennials.
The cap was raised to address the labor shortage facing the country due to its declining fertility rate (which is the lowest in the world) and its aging population.
However, critics were quick to condemn the move. They argued that tightening labor laws would only make things worse. Experts often cite the country’s high work ethic and growing disillusionment among its younger generation as the main causes of its demographic problems.
Only in 2018, the country had reduced the limit from 68 to 52 hours per week due to popular demand. This move received overwhelming support at the National Assembly at that time.
Current law restricts work hours to 40 hours and allows for 12 hours of overtime compensation. However, critics claim that many workers feel pressured to work longer hours.
Jung Junsik (25-year-old university student from Seoul) said that the proposal doesn't make sense and is far from what workers want. He added that, even with the government's U turn, many workers would still feel pressured to work beyond the legal limit.
He said that his father worked excessively each week, and there was no line between work and family. This is unfortunately quite common in the workforce. The labor inspectors are not able to monitor every workplace 24 hours a day. The South Korean population will continue to be vulnerable to dangerous overtime work.
The OECD estimates that South Koreans worked an average of 1,915 hours per year in 2021. This is far more than the 1,716 hour average for the OECD and the 1,767 hour average for the USA.
It was once widely believed that long hours and high education were the main factors in the remarkable economic growth of the country after the Korean War in 1950s. The country went from being poor to one of the richest in the world.
Critics say that the other side to long hours is shown in scores of gwarosa' cases, which are 'death from overwork'. These cases involve exhausted workers who pay the price with their lives by suffering heart attacks, industrial accidents, or sleep-deprived driving.
Haein Shim, spokeswoman for Haeil in Seoul, stated that the country's rapid economic growth and success came at a price and that the government's proposal to increase working hours was evidence of its'reluctance' to accept the reality of South Korean society.
She stated that 'isolation, lack of community and long work hours' were already affecting many workers. 'Insane work hours' will only exacerbate the problems faced by Korean women.
She pointed out that the country has the highest suicide rate of all developed countries, in addition to gwarosas. This is according to data from National Statistical Office.
Shim stated that it was crucial for government and companies to address urgent issues that were already affecting people's lives. 'If we want to ensure the well-being and wellbeing of individuals, it is essential that support and a healthy balance between work and life are provided. This is despite the fact that the OECD has the highest suicide rate.
According to government data, hundreds died from overwork in 2017, the year before the government cut the limit on working hours. Even after the limit was reduced to 52 hours, cases involving 'gwarosas' continued to dominate the news. Labor unions claimed that 14 delivery workers died from overwork in 2020. They had sacrificed their mental health to keep the country running during the Covid-19 pandemic.