SEOUL: South Korea wants to shake off its notoriety for long working hours.
President Lee Myung Bak this week directed his staff to come up with measures to cut working hours, starting with the large conglomerates or chaebols.
'Shortened hours have many positive impacts on our society - improving lifestyle, creating new jobs and boosting private consumption,' he said on Wednesday. 'It will be a virtuous cycle for society as a whole.'
South Korea is looking at ending its ingrained culture of long working hours in a bid to create more jobs which could help ease its youth unemployment problem.
Statistics showed that unemployment rate among those aged 15 to 29 was 7.6 per cent last year, 0.4 percentage point down from the year before, but this figure is still double the overall unemployment rate, reported Hankyoreh news.
An unnamed official from the Labour Ministry told Korea Times that 5,200 new jobs were created last year after 500 firms were stopped from making their employees work longer than what was legally allowed.
Companies generally prefer making existing staff work overtime to hiring new staff. Although the introduction of a mandatory shortened work week since 2004 has led to a steady fall in working hours over the past few years, South Korea still tops international surveys for the longest working hours.
In 2010, South Koreans worked an average of 2,111 hours per person per year, the highest among 34 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD average for 2010 is 1,749 hours.
The OECD does not tabulate comparable figures for Singapore but other surveys show that workers here consistently log among the highest number of hours worldwide although their productivity often lags behind. The latest Ministry of Manpower statistics show that employees clocked an average of 46.2 hours a week in 2010.
By law, the work week for any South Korean worker should not exceed 52 hours, including overtime work which is capped at 12 hours per week.
But overtime on Saturdays and Sundays is not counted and many firms have exploited the loophole to make employees work weekends in excess of the weekly maximum.
According to the Korea Labour and Society Institute, 2.41 million workers or 13.8 per cent of all employees work more than 52 hours per week.
The majority of South Korean workers complain that they are overworked and report a low level of job satisfaction. Long hours at work has also been blamed for the country's low birth rate, reported local media.
Labour Minister Lee Chae Pil said his ministry would revise laws to restrict weekend work. 'I plan to include weekend and holiday work in the calculation of overtime in order to end the long working hours practices once and for all,' he said in a recent media interview.
His ministry announced yesterday that it will be tightening its regular inspections of workplaces this year.
Its officials will inspect 35,000 workplaces this year, about the same number as last year, but labour-intensive sectors will face a tough inspection this year. 'The inspection is mainly aimed at reducing overwork. At the same time we hope our steps will create more jobs,' a ministry official told Agence France-Presse.
The ministry's survey last year showed that car plant employees clocked the longest working hours in the country at an average of 2,500 hours per year, while steel and metal processing firms recorded 2,400.
Trade unions welcomed the efforts to cut working hours, saying the move would create better work-life balance for workers.
Employers and business groups, however, have warned that tightened labour rules will increase their labour costs.
The Hyundai Motor Group, for example, would need to hire 6,000 new workers under tightened labour laws, said Korea Times in an editorial yesterday.
Number of South Koreans who work over 52 hours per week. The figure represents 13.8 per cent of all employees
Car plant employees (below) clocked the longest average working hours in South Korea last year
Employees at steel and metal processing plants were not far behind
Average time a South Korean worker spent at work in 2010. The figure is the highest among 34 members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
The OECD average for 2010