In March, a proposed amendment to South Korea's Labor Standards Act failed, sinking attempts to raise the cap on working hours per week from 52 to 69 and provide companies with more flexibility related to overtime.
"Forty hours per week is the basic full-time workload in South Korea, and then 12 hours per week of overtime is allowed. So if we want to let people work more than 52 hours per week, then in principle that's not allowed; it's prohibited," said Eunjee Kim, an attorney with Bae, Kim & Lee in Seoul. "In South Korea the unit of work hour management is legally defined as per week, not per month."
Why Raise the Cap?
One reason for attempting to raise the cap was to give companies more flexibility with overtime work hours.
"For example, if you are an accounting professional, then the first week and last week of the month tends to be busier than the rest. So you may want to work more in the first and last weeks, then take more rest in the third week or whatever is the slower week of the month, … but because the unit of work hour measurement is per week, not per month, there is not much flexibility to vary workload by week over the typical pattern of a month that a company may have," Kim said.
"The point is such restrictions can be impractical for some businesses or workers under the current system, so that's the reason why the Ministry of Employment Labor wanted to allow flexibility to the working hour unit itself," she added. "So-called 69 hours per week is just the cap of allowable working hours and was not exactly the essence of legislative change which the government intended to introduce."
Another incentive for raising the cap was to make South Korea appealing for international businesses that might want to operate in Korea. "The proposal to increase the maximum working hours from 52 to 69 hours a week was in response to business voices lobbying for greater flexibility. Perhaps the conservative government wanted to position itself as being pro-business, and to make it easier for employers operating in South Korea," said Fatim Jumabhoy, an attorney with Herbert Smith Freehills in Singapore. "The opposition voice was equally vocal, with younger employees and unions making it clear that they do not support a longer workweek."
Reversal of Earlier Change
The attempt to raise the cap on working hours was a reversal of a 2018 amendment that lowered the working hours cap from 68 hours to 52 hours. At the time, there was a more pro-labor government, and the change was in reaction to overwork among the South Korean workforce.
In 2018, "South Korean workers regularly clocked some of the longest working hours in the region. That necessarily has an impact on employees, on work/life balance, on the ability to have a sustainable family life," Jumabhoy said. The change was due to "the previous government recognizing that working hours were having an impact on population growth and that the position was not sustainable, especially taking account of employee mental health and well-being." The implementation of the 2018 amendment was completed in 2021.
Shift in Employee Mindset
Between 2018 and 2023, many factors made it difficult for the South Korean government to raise the cap on working hours to 69 hours per week. The COVID-19 pandemic and a younger working population with different ideas about work/life balance made the prospect of a 69-hour workweek difficult to sell to the public.
"We've seen a complete shift in the way employees want to work anyway, and the idea that success is linked to long hours has been loudly challenged," Jumabhoy said. "Workplaces are having to look at other ways to gauge productivity. COVID made flexible and remote working a reality, and it's hard to put the genie back into the bottle."
There are consequences for companies that do not follow the 52-hour cap. "If the employer does not comply with the working hour maximum, then the Labor Standards Act provides for legal, and even criminal, consequences. The employee can sue the company if the employer does not comply with this regulation," Kim said.
But South Koreans "have become quite comfortable with a working hours cap now," Jumabhoy said. "I think the cap is probably here to stay."
Katie Nadworny is a freelance writer in Istanbul.