South Korean workers hopeful but wary as 52-hour workweek kicks off

Pedestrians crossing the road in Seoul, South Korea. Many are cautiously optimistic over the possibility of having better work-life balance as the 52-hour workweek kicks off.
Pedestrians crossing the road in Seoul, South Korea. Many are cautiously optimistic over the possibility of having better work-life balance as the 52-hour workweek kicks off.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - As South Korea officially kicks off its 52-hour workweek this week, many South Koreans are cautiously optimistic over the possibility of having better work-life balance.

"I have just six hours to go before I leave work. I'm feeling great," said a user of online portal Naver.

Another user praised the implementation of the new labour policy, saying: "I welcome the news as someone who can't stand traffic during rush hour. Hopefully different operating hours will ease traffic congestion."

According to a survey conducted by the job search engine Job Korea in June, nearly half of respondents have a positive view towards the new measure. Among them, 55 per cent are hopeful that productivity will improve, while over 70 per cent are looking forward to having more spare time to rest.

Last week, the Ministry of Labour touted the shorter working hours on its Twitter account, saying that South Koreans will escape from an "overworked society" come July 1.

The new labour law reduces the country's maximum working hours from 68 to 52 per week among companies with over 300 staff members, from this week. Smaller companies with 50 to 300 staff members will be subject to the law from 2020.

Under the new act, employers will have to pay time and a half to employees for the additional 12 hours after 40 hours.

Not everyone is thrilled about the change, however, as the same survey also showed 49.6 per cent are either not interested or have little to no expectation. Many of them were also concerned about not getting paid overtime.

One Twitter user wrote: "I prefer a life where I earn good money than a life where I have an evening."

A study by the Korea Economic Research Institute in June revealed that financial compensation for labour in the wake of reduced working hours will be one of the toughest challenges facing companies.

The move is already having an impact on the economy, with major retailers adjusting opening hours. Cinema chains are also targeting workers with more free time by touting discounts for moviegoers after work during weekdays.

Beginning Monday (July 2), in an industry first, all branches of Shinsegae Department Store, excluding those in Myeong-dong and Gangnam, will open at 11am.

Since 1979, the department store had opened at 10.30am until it decided to change its weekday opening time following the government's introduction of a 52-hour maximum workweek.

Officials at Shinsegae Department Store found that delaying opening hours during the week could help ensure a better work-life balance among workers after a trial run at selected branches.

Major cinema chain CGV is also trying to attract those who are able to leave their workplaces earlier than before, offering 2,000 won (S$2.45) off tickets for 2D films playing between 7pm and 9pm between Monday and Thursday.