Employees in this part of Asia were working for up to 68 hours a week. Even Mexico, Columbia and Turkey do not rank as highly as South Korea when it comes to working hours, with employees in these countries typically racking up around 45 working hours. Even so, to readers in the UK, a reduction by law to 52 hours a week may still seem excessive.
The aim is to improve the quality of life, and to encourage more people into the workforce with improved conditions. The South Korean National Assembly passed the law, which will come into effect in July. It will have an immediate impact on large companies, who will have to abide by the law, although the law will be phased in to apply to smaller companies.
President Moon-Jae-in had promised the change in his campaign, along with an increase of 16% in the minimum wage.
The new law has not been received entirely favourably by businesses, although it has been acknowledged that the reduction in the working week will have a positive impact on the general standard of living, and that it will encourage more people to come into the workforce.
Another factor is the increasing concern about the ever-aging population – a shorter working week should have an effect on birth rates. In 2016, the country’s fertility rate was 1.17, which is the lowest in the world. At that rate, it was expected to fall to 1.07 in 2017, a rate of under 400,00 babies born that year.
The bullish market of the 1980s and 90s is the background to the introduction of this disproportionately long working week in this part of Asia. It was at this time that birth figures took a downturn. The gender equality and family minister, Chung Hyun-back, cited the culture of this period as a negative, and said that the working week was mercilessly long.
It is an undisputed fact that amongst the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, South Koreans work the longest hours. These figures do not include any statistics for China and India. Undeniably, workers in developing countries work longer hours.
In the UK and Australia, employees work 400 hours a year fewer than those in South Korea, which equates to 10 fewer weeks. Conversely, salaries in these countries are about the same on average.
The 52 hours a week are divided between a basic week of 40 hours, and 12 hours of overtime. The Korean Economic Research Institute maintains that the economy will suffer, with a cost to businesses of 12t won ($11bn) in terms of preserving productivity.
There are now 5 businesses which are exempt from the new law. Previously, there had been 26 which did not have to abide by the ruling. The businesses which are exempt are in the fields of transport and healthcare. However, employees under 18 will have their working hours reduced from 40 to 35, which is typical of the working week in France, for example.
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