S. Korea to rethink plan allowing 69-hour work week after outcry by Gen Z, millennials

South Korea is already the most overworked country in Asia with employees logging an average of 1,915 hours in 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL – South Korea will reconsider its plan to raise the maximum weekly work hours to 69 after its “MZ Generation (Gen MZ)” of millennials and Gen Z baulked at the idea that many saw as destroying a healthy work-life balance.

The office of President Yoon Suk-yeol instructed relevant agencies to reconsider plans to revise the current cap of 52 hours and “communicate better with the public, especially with Generation Z and millennials”, press secretary Kim Eun-hye said in a statement on Tuesday. 

The move could be seen as a retreat for Mr Yoon, who has backed pro-business policies.

His administration had sought to raise the cap, saying it would allow employers greater flexibility to keep their doors open longer to meet demands during periods of peak activity. It was also designed to help workers bank more hours that could be used for time off at periods convenient for them. 

But labour unions, including those led by outspoken members of the country’s MZ Generation, said the proposal would lead to more time on the job and undermine progress the country has made in reducing average working hours that rank among the highest in the developed world.

South Korea is already the most overworked country in Asia, with employees logging an average of 1,915 hours in 2021.

This is 199 hours more than the average among members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and about 33 per cent more than in Germany.

It also comes as countries, including Australia and Britain, are considering a four-day work week aimed at giving workers more time away from the office.

Keeping the support of younger voters will be a top priority for Mr Yoon as his conservative People Power Party tries to win a majority in parliamentary elections that will be held in about a year. 

The progressive Democratic Party, which holds a majority in Parliament, enacted a measure in 2018 to cap the work week at 52 hours and has fought against the changes floated by Mr Yoon’s party. 

The labour ministry under Mr Yoon had suggested last week to revise the current 52-hour work week system to calculations on a monthly, quarterly and yearly basis that could allow hours to swell during peak periods. Before the announcement, the revised Bill was expected to be submitted to Parliament as early as June.

The Serogochim Labour Union, with 8,000 members, many of whom are from the MZ Generation, said in a statement last week the government’s plan runs counter to global trends and could encourage workers at home to ramp up hours beyond acceptable limits.

Long working hours have also been cited as one of the factors behind the country having the world’s lowest fertility rate, with time on the job taking away time parents could use to take care of their children. BLOOMBERG

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