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[Editorial] Freedom of choice

Government to relax rigid 52-hour workweek limit in certain sectors

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 15, 2023 - 05:30

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The government will relax the current 52-hour workweek -- 40 regular hours and 12 hours of possible overtime -- in certain industries and occupations.

It plans to make work hours flexible so that employees in some business sectors and occupations can work longer when they have a lot of work as long as they work fewer hours at other times.

The current workweek is too rigid. Making an employee work for more than 52 hours in any single week is illegal in most occupations. There is no exception for flexible use of overtime.

In March, the government planned to allow overtime to be allocated not only by the week but also by the month, by the half-year or by the year, but backed away from the plan. It restricted flexible work hours to certain business sectors and occupations.

Now it is important to determine reasonable work hours in the fields where labor and management can choose to increase overtime. Unless issues such as health of laborers and overtime allowance should be resolved well, increased flexibility may lead to claims of labor exploitation.

The policy unveiled Monday is based on the results of an Employment and Labor Ministry survey of 6,030 workers, business owners and members of the general public from June to August.

They show broad sympathy with the plan to apply the current 52-hour workweek more flexibly.

More than half (54.9 percent) of those surveyed said strict weekly control on overtime hinders the satisfaction of demands for overtime extensions in some sectors.

When the government announced workweek reform plans in March, large trade unions condemned them harshly, claiming that monthly, quarterly, half-yearly or yearly control of total overtime could lead to a 69-hour workweek and that the new system would lead to workers dying on the job. However, the survey results show their arguments were an instigation and distortion.

The government did not specify the business sectors and occupations to be subject to the flexible workweek, but manufacturing, construction, health services and R&D are expected to be priority fields.

The government is likely to consider a maximum 60 hours for a specific week in the flexible 52-hour system. This is grounded on survey results that workweek extension "within 60 hours" was the most popular option chosen by workers (75.3 percent) and business owners (74.7 percent). At the height of the 69-hour workweek controversy, President Yoon Suk Yeol has expressed his opinion that a workweek of 60 hours or longer is excessive.

The ministry said it will discuss follow-up measures to allow labor and management in certain industries and occupations to choose from various overtime control units -- for example managing overtime weekly, monthly, half-yearly and yearly.

The ministry will work out details through dialogue with employers and labor unions. The government is pushing workweek reform as cautiously as possible this time, considering it had to abandon its initial plan due to a strong backlash in March.

The Federation of Korean Trade Unions on Monday declared it would return to the social dialogue.

The nationwide union group accepted the presidential office's request for participation in the dialogue. Its acceptance came five months after the federation boycotted the Economic, Social and Labor Council, a tripartite dialogue organization under the direct supervision of the presidential office.

Its return to dialogue is expected to give momentum to the government's workweek reform. But considering South Korea's workweek is long compared with other major economies, it would not be easy to get consent from labor on the flexible workweek, even if it is limited to certain business sectors and occupations.

Working time regulations are a complex matter involving many people and lots of competing interests. The process of reaching social consensus matters. Sufficient and in-depth discussion utilizing various channels including the tripartite dialogue is required to raise social acceptance of the reform.

The point of workweek reform does not lie in mandatory overtime but in giving a choice to labor and management. To facilitate consensus, the government must take steps to prevent abuse of autonomous choice.