In South Korea the new normal future of work is ... a 52-hour work week! (Down from 68)

New rules kick in for small businesses on July 1 and, despite three years’ warning, the government still sees a need for extra support


South Korea, long known for tolerating extremely long working hours, is on track to reduce the number of hours employers can require from their workforce to 52 per week from July 1st.

The government-mandated reduction in working hours was introduced in 2018, when the National Assembly approved a Bill that did away with laws permitting a whopping 68 hours a week of work.

The old regime allowed employers to insist their staff toiled for 40 regular hours, 12 hours of overtime and then up to 16 more hours on weekends.

The new 52-hour rule holds exceptions for workers in certain transportation and healthcare industries, but requires a break of at least 11 continuous hours between work shifts.

Even with three years’ notice of the new laws, South Korea’s government yesterday announced it would offer transition support for small businesses, with measures including wage subsidies for new hires made necessary by the new cap on paid toil.

The rules were phased in from July 2018, when companies with over 300 employees were required to comply. From January 2020, the law covered companies with headcounts above 50.

As of July 1st, only businesses with fewer than five employees will remain exempt. (Although companies with fewer than 30 employees will be allowed to require 60-hour working weeks until the end of 2022.)

Employers that break the rules can face up to three years’ imprisonment and 20 million won (US$17,600) in fines.

Korea’s birth rate fell 0.84 expected babies per woman in 2020, making it the lowest in the world — an undesirable statistic for a country also boasting the fastest-ageing population in the OECD. Many attribute the culture of long working hours for the drop.

The working hours are so onerous that an urban legend tells of an ISIS member whose plans for terrorism were foiled because he had no time in which to carry out nefarious actions — due to his long working hours and workplace abuse. Some versions of the story say Korean working hours drove the would-be terrorist to take his own life, although that details depends on which version of the story your Korean auntie forwarded.

The workweek reduction in Korea comes as the world faces will-we-or-won’t we decision on returning to the office. Analyst firm Gartner has predicted a roughly two-thirds increase in post-pandemic working from home and reports 70 per cent of employees across nine countries prefer a hybrid work environment. And, as it seems, you lot of Register readers agree. ®

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