South Korea, Asia's most overworked country, pushes for right to rest

An office building is illuminated at night in Seoul.
An office building is illuminated at night in Seoul. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - President Moon Jae In's drive to give South Koreans their "right to rest" by slashing work hours is making little headway as lawmakers haggle over pay rates for weekends.

While the long hours were once considered necessary to fuel rapid economic growth, the grind is now seen as the source of the country's social problems, including low birth rate and productivity.

South Koreans work 2,069 hours in 2016, the third-most among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development members after Mexico and Costa Rica.

Data from Singapore's Manpower Ministry shows that last year, Singaporeans clocked an average of 45.6 hours a week from January to September. This means Singaporeans clock an average of 2,371.2 paid hours a year.

With the changing societal attitude towards work, South Korea's ruling and opposition party lawmakers reached a tentative agreement in November to cap weekly hours at 52, down from 68, and give an extra 50 per cent in pay for weekends. 

President Moon, who pledged to cut hours during his presidential campaign last spring, said the change "is a task that should not be delayed any more".

But the agreement failed to reach the plenary session as some lawmakers and labour unions argued for doubling the extra pay for weekend work to 100 per cent.

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions said in a statement that doubling pay for weekend work is necessary to reduce working on weekends, and an appropriate level of compensation for those who must do so.

If lawmakers fail to revise the labour law by Dec 23, which seems likely, Parliament may not be able to pick it up again until February at the earliest.


A prolonged debate could put Moon's "right to rest" initiative on a permanent holding pattern as was seen with much of former president Park Geun Hye's legislative agenda.

Improve Productivity

As lawmakers argue over weekend wages, some employers say that while they agree with the need to shorten working hours, the changes should be more gradual.

Kim Young Vae, vice-chairman of the Korea Employers Federation, said at a forum on Dec 14 that the change should first be applied to bigger companies with more than 1,000 employees, and that a 60-hour cap should be allowed at companies that have reached agreement with their employees.

"Shorter working hours are necessary for the sake of happiness, but it needs to be discussed along with ways to improve labour productivity," said Kim Tai Gi, a professor of economics at Dankook University in Jukjeon, South Korea.

"Without better productivity, it would have side effects like a decline in income for workers and an increased cost burden for employers."

Labour productivity, as measured by total working hours and per capita GDP, was US$33 per hour for South Korea in 2016, compared with US$24 for Chile, US$41.5 for Japan, US$60 for France, and US$63 for the US, according to OECD data.

Not all workers welcome the move toward fewer hours.

Shinsegae Group, South Korea's retail giant, has announced it will reduce regular weekday working hours to 35 hours per week from 40 with no cut in wages from 2018.

But some labour unions for Shinsegae's discount store unit, E-mart, say it will only increase the burden on workers because they will be required to complete the same workload in fewer hours. 

They said that by 2020, the employees could also be paid less than others who are working longer hours and receiving the minimum 10,000 won per hour promised by President Moon during the campaign.