The 52-hour ceiling on workweek went into force from Monday. Under the Labor Standards Act revised in late February, chief executives of businesses with 300 or more employees will be punished if their employees work more than 52 hours a week.
President Moon Jae-in said in a meeting with Cheong Wa Dae senior secretaries Monday, held for the first time after he returned from his sick leave, “the 52-hour workweek will be an occasion to cast off a culture of overwork.” He highlighted advantages of the system, such as raising labor productivity and sharing jobs.
But anxiety and confusion linger on the corporate scene.
Large companies have adapted themselves to the system to some degree through their own rehearsals, but most mid-sized enterprises have not yet adjusted their systems to the shorter workweek.
Confusion has hit many workplaces because it conflicts with employment reality. Bus lines need to hire more drivers, but find it difficult to recruit them immediately.
In some industries it is inevitable for employees to work longer than standard working hours sometimes for several months in a certain season or to develop new products or processes. Restriction on working hours will undermine their businesses.
Confusion arose because the new workweek was enforced when both the government and industries were ill-prepared. The Ministry of Employment and Labor has a lot to answer for chaos still lingering at worksites even four months after the law was revised. The ministry rushed out guidelines and complementary measures shortly before the law took effect, but they are ambiguous and out of touch with reality.
In a situation like this, different positions were revealed within the government, confusing companies further.
Before the law went into force, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon agreed with the ruling party and Cheong Wa Dae to give a six-month guidance for companies to prepare, delaying crackdowns and punishment, but Employment and Labor Minister Kim Young-joo said the guidance did not mean violators of the standard workweek would get off scot-free. What’s more, Kim said the ministry would hire 600 more labor supervisors to check whether the new system is well enforced.
Even after the shorter workweek took effect, it is not clear whether offenders will be punished or not. Whose tune should companies dance to?
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Strategy and Finance Kim Dong-yeon and the ruling floor leader Hong Young-pyo both acknowledged the need to extend the period of flexible working hours schedule, but Minister Kim dissented, saying “if the flextime is extended to six months, having reduced working hours will become meaningless.”
The flexible work arrangement allows employees to adjust their working hours autonomously so that they can work longer than 52 hours a week when they have plenty of work to do. Otherwise, they work less than the standard working hours to meet the required hours on average. This system is absolutely needed, for example, to develop new software programs or products before a target date.
Deputy Prime Minister Kim and Hong were positive about extending the flextime period because they wanted to minimize side effects of the strict enforcement of the new rule. Yet Labor Minister Kim has stoked up confusion needlessly and irresponsibly.
The government announced last year that it would push to reduce the standard workweek to 52 hours. An efficient government would have prepared detailed measures in anticipation of chaos and side effects. Even if it is not that efficient or capable of doing so, at least it should have coordinated positions before the system took effect.
Many are concerned that the new workweek may jolt the economy as the rapid rise in minimum wage did. The first thing to do for the new standard working hours to have a soft landing is to clear confusion.
No one but president can sort this mess out.
But Moon made abstract instructions in the meeting, saying “the government must work out follow-up steps to dispel confusion and anxiety early.”
This basic position is not enough. He must set forth clear guidelines to dispel the confusion.