SEOUL — South Korea’s conservative government has proposed increasing the legal cap on weekly work hours from 52 to 69, triggering backlash from the opposition and wage-earners who fear the plan will ruin work-life balance in a country already well known for workaholism.
South Koreans already toil more than many of their overseas counterparts. They work an average of 1,915 hours a year, compared with 1,791 hours for Americans and 1,490 hours for the French, who have a 35-hour workweek, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD average is 1,716 hours.
South Korea’s proposal comes as the four-day workweek gains traction from Britain to California.
In a bid to sway public opinion, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration says some workers might ultimately have more free time under the new rules, as the government would also introduce a cap on the number of working hours per month, quarter or year. There would also be restrictions on working more than three 60-plus-hour weeks in a row. This means four-day workweeks are a possibility, Labor Minister Lee Jung-sik said at a recent news conference.
The plan would let employees choose how long and when they work, the ministry said.
“The current work-hour system does not convey the increasingly diverse and sophisticated needs of employers and employees by restricting the choices of workers and firms alike,” Lee said in a statement this week. “This does not fit global standards that stress the right to choose and the right to health.”
The ministry also pointed to new requirements mandating a minimum 11-hour rest period between shifts. However, critics say that the new rule doesn’t take into account commutes, after-work emails and text messages.
The proposal has sparked a backlash from workers who fear it will give employers legal grounds to encourage grueling hours on busy weeks.
“They say that the total hours we work every year will stay the same or come down,” said one 34-year-old worker at a Samsung affiliate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by their employer to speak publicly. “But there’s always more work to do. We might now see more overwork-related deaths if there’s a 69-hour workweek.”
Minbyun, a lawyers’ group that has close ties to the opposition, said in a statement Tuesday that the plan doesn’t address problems resulting from a long workweek, even if it caps hours on a quarterly or yearly basis.
The government is overlooking that work-related injuries and deaths “tend to increase when the workweek is not restricted to under 52 hours,” the group said, citing South Korean labor laws that consider medical issues that occur after multiple 60-hour workweeks to be work-related.
The government is seeking to submit the plan to parliament for approval by July, according to the semiofficial Yonhap News Agency. But the Democratic Party holds a parliamentary majority, meaning it can block the proposed amendments.
Long work hours have been cited as a major reason that South Korea’s fertility rate is the world’s lowest, at 0.78, while its suicide rate is one of the world’s highest at 24.1 per every 100,000 people, according to the OECD.
The World Health Organization has linked long working hours to increased risk of stroke and heart disease. “Working 55 hours or more per week is a serious health hazard,” Maria Neira, director of the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, said in 2021.
For some workers, the proposal rings hollow.
“Working until 9 or 10 p.m. is normal for me,” said an employee at an LG affiliate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized by their employer to speak publicly. “The 52-hour thing didn’t prevent me from working longer hours. So when I see headlines mentioning the 69-hour workweek, I can’t relate. I’m working long hours anyway.”