South Korea planned a 69-hour work week. Millennials and generation Z had other ideas
Seoul, South Korea (CNN) Short work weeks to boost employee mental health and productivity may be catching on in some countries around the world, but at least one country seems to have missed the memo.
South Korea’s government was forced this week to rethink a plan that would have raised the limit on working hours to 69 a week, from the current limit of 52, after sparking a backlash among millennials and Generation Z workers.
Workers in the centralized East Asian economy already face some of the longest hours in the world — ranking fourth behind Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile in 2021, according to the OECD — and death from overwork ( “gwarosa”) are thought to kill many people every year.
However, the government had backed the plan to raise the cap after pressure from business groups demanding a productivity boost — until, that is, it faced vociferous opposition from the younger generation and unions.
South Korea’s top presidential secretary, Yoon Suk Yeol, said Wednesday that the government will take a new “direction” after listening to public opinion and said it was committed to protecting the rights and interests of millennial workers. Mr. and non-union.
The cap increase was seen as a way to address the looming labor shortage the country faces due to its declining birth rate, which is the lowest in the world, and its aging population.
But the move was widely opposed by critics who argued that tightening the screw on workers would only make matters worse; Experts often cite the country’s demanding work culture and growing disillusionment among younger generations as contributing factors to its demographic woes.
Just in 2018, due to popular demand, the country had lowered the limit from 68 hours a week to the current 52 — a move that at the time received overwhelming support in the National Assembly.
Current law limits the work week to 40 hours plus up to 12 hours of compensated overtime — though in reality, critics say, many workers find themselves under pressure to work longer hours.
“The proposal makes no sense… and is so far from what workers really want,” said Jung Junsik, 25, a university student from the capital Seoul, who added that even with the government’s U-turn, many workers would continue to be pressured to work beyond the legal maximum.
“My father works hard every week and there is no boundary between work and life,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is quite common in the workforce. Labor inspectors cannot watch every workplace 24/7. South Korean people will (remain) vulnerable to deadly overtime.”
Pedestrians in downtown Seoul.
According to the OECD, South Koreans worked an average of 1,915 hours in 2021, well above the OECD average of 1,716 and the US average of 1,767.
Long hours, along with high levels of education and increased numbers of women entering the workforce, were once widely credited with driving the country’s remarkable economic growth after the Korean War in the 1950s, when it transformed from a poor in an economy. the richest in the world.
However, critics say the flip side of those long hours can be seen clearly in a number of cases of “gwarosa” — “death by overwork” — in which exhausted people pay with their lives through heart attacks, industrial accidents or drowsy driving. .
Haein Shim, a spokeswoman for the Seoul-based feminist group Haeil, said the country’s rapid growth and economic success had come at a cost, and the proposal to extend working hours reflected the government’s “reluctance to accept the realities of Korean society.” southern”.
She said the “isolation and lack of community stemming from long working hours and intense work days” was already wearing down many workers, and “crazy working hours will further exacerbate the challenges faced by Korean women.”
In addition to gwarosa cases, the country also has the highest suicide rate among developed countries, according to data from the Office of National Statistics, she noted.
“It is essential that the government (and companies) address the pressing issues that are already affecting lives,” Shim said. “The need for support and a healthy work-life balance cannot be overlooked if we are to ensure the well-being of individuals with the reality of the highest suicide rate in the OECD.”
In 2017, the year before the government lowered the limit on working hours, hundreds of people died from overwork, according to government data. Even when the limit was shortened to 52 hours, “gwarosa” cases continued to make headlines. In 2020, unions said 14 delivery workers had died from overwork after sacrificing their health and mental well-being to keep the country afloat during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
With previous reporting by CNN’s Jake Kwon and Alexandra Field