South Koreans work the longest hours in Asia, getting instructions from bosses well into the night and foregoing many of their allotted days off. Some relief could be on the way. Newly elected President Moon Jae-in pledged during the campaign to give people the “right to rest.” Moon promised to stop bosses from delivering orders through social media or mobile messages after hours (except when “unavoidable”), cut annual hours by almost 15 percent and provide alternate days off when public holidays fall on weekends.
Koreans spent 11 hours a week using smartphones, tablets and laptops to work on weekends or after hours during the week, a 2015 survey by the Korea Labor Institute found.
Experts say a better work-life balance would help relieve some of the country’s most chronic and pressing problems, including a fertility rate that ranks among the worst in the world, sluggish domestic demand and a female labor-participation rate far below that of men.
Many are skeptical about the prospects for change due to Korea’s entrenched work culture. Former President Park Geun-hye also encouraged companies to promote family-friendly policies. Earlier this year, lawmakers failed to pass a revision to the labor law capping weekly working hours at 52, down from 68, due to disagreements over how to treat work done on the weekend.
“Companies tend to think it’s better to make employees work a few hours more rather than hire new people, and that’s what most Korean workers think, leading to excessively long work hours,” said Kim Yoo-sun, a research fellow for the Korea Labor & Society Institute.
Lee Kyungyong, who worked as a sales person for a beauty and health operator before leaving in April, said he welcomed Moon’s proposals but found them a bit unrealistic. Lee said he normally worked 10 to 12 hours a day, and took only six days off each month.
Employers may resist if Moon moves too quickly.
“We agree shorter working hours is the way for Korea to proceed, but rapid changes can pose difficulties to companies,” said Park Ho-kyoon, head of public relations at the Korea Employers Federation. “Companies should be allowed some leeway. With a rigid labor market, it’s not as if companies can hire more to make up for shorter working hours, and then let them go when there is not enough work.”