Im, who spoke on the condition that only his last name be used because he was not authorized by his employer to speak publicly, is among the millions of South Koreans in their 20s or 30s who were exasperated by last week’s proposal from President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration to raise the legal cap on weekly work hours to 69,
In a rare policy reversal, the government will reconsider the plan after a vocal pushback from younger adults. “The president views workweeks longer than 60 hours as unrealistic, even when including overtime,” Ahn Sang-hoon, a senior presidential adviser, told reporters Thursday. “The government will listen more carefully to opinions from MZ workers” among others, he added, using the collective term commonly used in South Korea for millennials and those in Generation Z.
“I think it’s a positive sign that the president has taken a step back after listening to younger generations,” said Kim Seol, the chief of Youth Community Union, a labor activist group that advocates better working conditions for younger adults. “But it’s also proof that the president didn’t really think this through,” he said.
Yoon’s disapproval rating among South Koreans in their 20s and 30s jumped to 66 percent and 79 percent respectively on March 10, four days after the government formally announced the 69-hour proposal, according to Gallup Korea. (The ratings were 57 percent and 62 percent respectively on March 3.) Disapproval ratings from other age groups during the same period either stayed similar or decreased.
By law, the South Korean workweek is 40 hours with up to 12 hours of weekly overtime, as long as the employer compensates workers with extra vacation or pay. In practice, overtime frequently goes unrewarded. according to workers in their 20s and 30s who spoke to The Post. Employers nudge them to do leftover work from home in the evenings, they say, and in some cases accuse them of being inefficient to avoid legal scrutiny for the extended hours.
Daniel Kim, a 35-year-old who works in the medical industry as a researcher, said he once went through an eight-month period when he could not go home before 10 pm. Eighty-hour workweeks were not unheard of at his company, he said. His wife, who is employed by a pharmaceutical firm and often works into the night, was wrapping up work at home as she was being interviewed for this story around 9 pm Wednesday.
South Koreans work an average of 1,915 hours a year, while Americans work 1,791 hours, according to the latest figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD average is 1,716 hours.
Neighboring Japan — which two decades ago had work hours above the OECD mean and is still taking steps to overcome the problem of Karoshior deaths from overworking—last year averaged 1,607 hours. Today, “working excessively long hours is frowned upon” in Japan, said Motohiro Morishima, a professor of human resource management at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. South Korea should seek to increase productivity, not working hours, he said.
“If there is more work, [South Korean] employers should hire more people,” said Lee Jong-sun, a professor of labor relations at Korea University’s Graduate School of Labor Studies in Seoul. That way, more jobs are created and overwork is reduced, he said.
But companies rarely do, he said, because they either don’t have the financial capacity or because it’s cheaper to ask existing employees to pick up the slack. “Hiring new people means more benefits, insurance and more wages,” Lee said. “It’s more expensive.”
As recently as 20 years ago, South Koreans were expected to work 5½ days each week. On Saturday mornings, children would go to school while parents headed to the office for a half-day. It was only in 2011 that the country fully adopted the five-day workweek. Seven years later, the country capped weekly working hours at 52.
“Nobody wants to go back to longer weeks,” said Lee, 58, who remembers when he would have to sacrifice participation at family gatherings on Saturdays to go to work. Legalizing a workweek of 60-plus hours would be like sending the country back in time, he said. “We’ve already felt the benefits of shorter weeks. Why would anyone want to go back?
Im, who works a corporate job, got married this year — and said a 69-hour workweek would mean giving up his and his wife’s hope of having two kids. “Who’s going to take care of the baby if mom and dad are at work all day?” he said. “It’s frustrating, but there’s little I can do about it.” He expressed doubt that South Korea’s world-lowest A birthrate of 0.78 would improve under such a system.
Long hours are associated with low birthrates because they are “antithetical to caring and they make the clash between work and care” difficult, said Rae Cooper, a professor of gender and employment relations at the University of Sydney. “South Korea sits near the top of the list” of countries with long working hours, she said, adding: “This is not a prize to be celebrated.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Gakushuin University is in Kyoto, Japan. The university is in Tokyo. The article has been corrected.
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