A 52 hour workweek system in South Korea aims at improving the quality of workers’ lives by reducing their laboring hours significantly and creating more jobs. It was implemented after the revised Labor Standards Act was sanctioned on 1 July 2018. This policy intends to shorten working hours and increase a work-life balance as much as possible. According to the Act, the government provides conglomerates with a maximum of 600,000 won per new employee and provides small and medium-sized businesses with 1,000,000 won per month. In order to reduce official legal working hours from 68 hours to 52 hours per week, the legislature passed the Labor Standard Law Revision Bill in February 2018. Thus, starting from 1 July 2018, the bill has taken effect for businesses and public institutions that have more than 300 employees. From 1 January 2020, the 52 hour workweek system is scheduled to be implemented at companies that have from 50 to 299 employees. After that, from 1 January 2021, it will be applied to companies that have from 5 to 49 as well employees. The former system, that is a 68 hour workweek system, permitted up to 40 hours of work on weekdays, with a 5 day workweek, 16 hour extended-work on holidays, and weekday extension work up to 12 hours. However, the 52 hour workweek system allows up to 40 hours of work on weekdays and 12 hours of extension work on weekdays and holiday. It means, from now on, a maximum of eight hours a day and only 12 hours of extension work including holiday work is legally allowed. If employers violate this law, they can be sentenced to a maximum two years in prison and a fine of up to 20 million won.
Although some people are skeptical of the new system, there are a lot of positive opinions of its advantages and possible wholesome, long-term effects. As for the advantages, first, we can expect that, as intended, the stable implementation and settlement of the system would allow workers not only to get a work-life balance but enjoy a happy evening life. In fact, according to the OECD 2014 survey of working hours among OECD countries, Mexico, Greece, and Chile, and South Korea worked 200 hours a year more than the OECD average countries did. In these work-oriented countries, work and life are not balanced, which may lead to a poor quality of life and low morale among people.
Second, the new system can allow better opportunities for enhancing people’s competence and sharpening personal skills in their various areas thanks to more available time. Moreover, it may be conducive to the increase of people’s consumption in their leisure time. Although workers have a lot of money, they cannot enjoy their activities for consumption or leisure if they have no leisure time to enjoy. In this respect, increased consumption due to the new system will boost our economy in the long run.
The third advantage of the new system is that we can expect more job sharing due to shortened working hours. Here, job sharing may occur with a company’s management policy that reduces its working hours, aiming at lowering wages and hiring more workers with the saved wages and time. In fact, the Korea Labor Institute anticipates that working-hour reduction will create up to 132,000 jobs. However, many companies will encounter difficulties in hiring new employees because of economic burdens.
As I said earlier, the 52 hour workweek system is expected to have the clear purpose of improving the quality of people’s lives. On the other hand, there are also many expected problems because the system is not stabilized yet. Some people are concerned about average workers’ wage cuts and even inflation. Small and medium-sized firms may ascribe the shortage of workers in maintaining their production volume to shortened working hours, according to the KBIZ. The Korea Economic Research Institute estimates that the implementation of the 52-hour workweek system would result in a workforce shortage of 266,000 people all throughout the companies. Such a large scale might become too burdensome for companies to handle within a short period. The second problem is whether this new policy can be applied to all industries and professions without exception. Some industries would easily keep up with the policy with fewer working hours and sharing jobs, but others might not be able to keep up as easily or quickly. For instance, in the hectic media industry, reporters and staff requiring speed in dealing with creating news reports and stories might have difficulty with their work in accordance with the new, shortened working hour system. Third, employees of small or medium-sized enterprises may feel that they are at a relative disadvantage due to working hours and wages, compared with other workers in larger companies that have followed the new system since its implementation. Additionally, it is questionable whether one’s work and life will be adequately balanced and whether workers will have time to enjoy their home and leisure life. At a glance, we can assume most companies would observe the official working hours. But we can also imagine the situation that workers have to bring their unfinished work home and work at night in their pajamas so as to make up for the possible low productivity and workforce shortage in their companies. Finally, conflicts between companies and workers also may occur. Actually, Mr. Kim, who worked for three months as a dispatched driver for Korean Air, was dismissed after the implementation of the new system because he did not accept his company’s request to switch to a monitoring job that is not subject to the 52 hour rule. As such, company owners may wield their powers in the name of the new policy and bring about conflicts between companies (or managers) and workers.
However, despite the problems mentioned above, the 52 hour workweek system is an unprecedented economic policy that our new government is trying to pursue with its utmost sincerity. Therefore, we can expect positive effects with our painstaking endeavors. The best solution for the possible problems between companies and workers will be found in the frequent communication and mutual understanding between companies and employees. Such attitudes of both parties avoiding self-interested shortsightedness will be essential to make the new system flourish.