More flexibility at work through more working hours? This reform proposal by the South Korean government has provoked violent counter-reactions in the Asian country. So much so that the cabinet in Seoul was now forced to reconsider their original plans.
The conservative government actually wanted to reform the controversial 52-hour week in South Korea, which was introduced there in 2018. It stipulates that overtime must be capped at 12 hours per week to ensure the total number of hours worked remains at 52. However, companies complained about difficulties with the regulation.
The plans unveiled last week should enable companies to manage overtime not only weekly, but also monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annually, Yonhap news agency reports. This allows companies to choose more hours in weeks with a high workload and fewer hours in weeks with a lower workload.
Accordingly, 140 hours per quarter, 250 hours per half year and 440 hours per year are permitted. The plans also include an 11-hour rest period and the ability to accumulate overtime and take it later as longer leave.
However, this also allows companies to increase the maximum weekly working time to 69 hours, Yonhap continues.
"(The plan) will benefit workers with different work schedules, such as a four-day week and a sabbatical month, while helping companies manage their workforce," Labor Minister Lee Jeong-sik said at a news conference.
The move was welcomed by the Korea Enterprise Federation, the country's largest business lobby. The labor reform offers more flexibility to cope with the increasing workload.
Employees, especially the younger generation, see things very differently. Yonhap further reports that they see the government's plans as an attack on the work-life balance.
The South Korean trade union federation supported the young workers' protest. "The reform makes it legal to work from nine in the morning to midnight," said the union federation, which was also concerned about the possible health consequences of the long working hours. The reform proposal is "not realistic".
The women's rights group Korean Women's Associations United said such a reform of working hours would mean more care work at home for women. In South Korea, many women are still forced to take care of the household and children. Critics also complained that the planned reform would not boost the country's already low birth rate, the Reuters news agency reported.
The opposition in parliament also found sharp words for the government plans. "In the eyes of the Yoon Suk Yeol government, workers are not members of the country but are being exploited," said MP Lee Jae-myung, leader of the Democratic Party. "I wonder if the government wants people to die at work."
The force of the protests has now persuaded the government in Seoul to back down. President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday instructed his cabinet to revise the proposed reform of the 52-hour week, paying particular attention to the views of the younger generation, Yonhap said in his office.
Then on Thursday, he ordered his ministers to take a "complementary measure to the proposed longer working week," a senior President Yonhap official said. "President Yoon recognizes that it is impossible to work more than 60 hours a week, even if you work overtime," said Ahn Sang-hoon, the president's executive secretary for social affairs.
The voices of MZ workers, non-union workers and workers in small and medium-sized enterprises will be carefully listened to, Ahn said. In South Korea, MZ refers to Millennials and Generation Z people.
In the summer, the plans are then to be submitted to the National Assembly for approval. Lee Jae-myung has already announced his party will block the bill.
Sources: Yonhap and Reuters news agencies