South Korea is pitching a 69-hour maximum workweek

The idea of a four-day workweek is gaining steam in economies like the U.S. and the U.K, as studies report shorter working hours lead to lower burnout and improved employee retention without hurting productivity.

But South Korea is going the opposite direction. The Asian country is proposing letting its employees work longer hours—and argues the change will encourage households to start a family.

On Monday, the South Korea government officially unveiled its plans to reform the country’s caps on maximum working hours, first proposed by the country’s president, Yoon Suk-Yeol, in December.

Under a law passed in 2018, South Korean workers can work a maximum of 52 hours a week, combining a standard 40-hour work week with an additional 12 hours of overtime. Employers that breach the limit risk paying a fine or even jail time.

But the proposed scheme would allow employers and workers to decide to measure overtime on a monthly, quarterly, or even a yearly basis. The government will also expand the maximum amount of overtime an employee can take a week to 29 hours, meaning a maximum workweek of 69 hours. 

South Korea’s government argues that the new scheme allows for greater flexibility, and expressed hopes that workers might work fewer hours overall.

On Thursday, South Korea’s labor ministry even tried pitching the new rules as a way to support the country’s flagging fertility rate, which at 0.78 births per woman is the world’s lowest. Ministers suggested that workers might work longer hours one week in exchange for longer holidays elsewhere in the year. 

“We can resolve serious social problems like fast aging and low birth rates by allowing women to choose their working hours more flexibly,” labor minister Lee Jung-sik said, according to the Financial Times.

Korean business groups have welcomed the plan, while unions and women’s groups have criticized the proposed rules.

“While men will work long hours and be exempt from care responsibilities and rights, women will have to do all the care work,” the Korean Women’s Associations United said in a statement to Reuters

Unions, too, are against the change. “It will make it legal to work from 9 a.m. to midnight for five days in a row,” the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions said in a statement, blasting the government as having “no regard for workers’ health and rest.”

South Korea’s new rules do include provisions against extended shifts, requiring at least 11 hours of rest time between working days. 

But it’s not clear that Korean workers will be able to take advantage of their proposed flexibility. Only 40% of Korean employees used up all their annual leave in 2020, according to a government survey cited by the Financial Times. The average Korean employee worked a total of 1,915 hours in 2021, the fifth-highest total and almost 200 hours above the global average, according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

And only 14% of Korean workers belong to a labor union, likely limiting their ability to negotiate for more flexible hours. 

The four-day workweek

Several countries have launched pilot programs to investigate the effects of a four-day workweek. One such pilot program, covering 2,900 employees in the U.K., reported significant improvements in employee health and retention with no loss in productivity. 

The six-month pilot, which offered full pay to employees working just 80% of their regular hours, reported a 65% drop in sick days and a 57% decrease in the likelihood an employee would quit. Almost all companies that took part in the trial said they would continue with a four-day workweek for now. 

Other governments are now considering trials of a four-day workweek. U.S. lawmakers at both the state and federal level are introducing bills to at least test a 32-hour week. And on Thursday, Australian senators called on the country’s government to try a shorter working week for its own employees. 

Yet experts have warned that the benefits of a four-day workweek accrue primarily to salaried workers. Hourly workers instead face the challenge of not having enough hours, or following an unstable just-in-time schedule. 

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