52-hour workweek can hurt Korea's export competitiveness - The Korea Times
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52-hour workweek can hurt Korea's export competitiveness

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Barbara Zollmann, president and CEO of the Korean-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KGCCI), speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the KGCCI office in Hannam-dong, Seoul, July 11. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
Barbara Zollmann, president and CEO of the Korean-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KGCCI), speaks during an interview with The Korea Times at the KGCCI office in Hannam-dong, Seoul, July 11. / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Germany's 'Ausbildung' vocational program helps ease youth unemployment

By Jun Ji-hye

Korea's mandatory 52-hour workweek, which went into effect on July 1, can hurt its export competitiveness if the working hour reduction is enforced indiscriminately across industries, according to the head of the Korean-German Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KGCCI).

In a recent interview with The Korea Times, Barbara Zollmann, president and CEO of the KGCCI, said the Korean government should make the 52-hour work week more flexible to manage the reality of globally active companies.

Her comments come at a time when confusion and anxiety still abounds at enterprises in Korea since the revision to the Labor Law reduced the maximum workweek from 68 hours to 52 hours.

President Moon Jae-in said the nation should break away from the practice of overworking, stressing the need for a balance between work and life. But enterprises are still struggling to adjust their working environment to the shorter workweek.

"For the moment there is a very narrow and inflexible definition on how the 52 hours can be used," Zollmann said during the interview, July 11. "I don't think this works in modern times where we have digitalization and where you usually go for flexibility of the working environment for people."

She then said, "Korea is an exporting country so you have customers in Asia, Europe and the United States. They are all awake in a different time zone. How do you manage this if you have such inflexible working hours?"

Comparing Korea to Germany, she said Germany has a maximum workweek of 48 hours (Monday to Saturday), and between work days, the minimum of an 11-hour break time has to be applied. She emphasized that exemptions can apply for certain industries.

"(German) companies structure work hours within this legal framework, agreed between company management and work councils. There is a lot of flexibility," she said. "It is important for a government to leave the flexibility so that companies can structure work hours within the legal framework according to necessity. Companies work along the needs of their customers. Therefore, production, administration, sales or other functions need to be regulated differently in agreement between employers and employees."

She stressed not only that the number of work hours count for companies but also for the productivity of employees.

"According to statistics, productivity in Korea is still comparatively low. This is why a steep increase of wages, which is not going hand in hand with productivity increases, remains difficult to digest for companies and hurts their competitiveness in the market," she said.

Zollmann said President Moon, who was inaugurated in May last year, came in at a very complicated time because there have been so many things happening.

"There is digitalization and steps towards energy transition," she said. "There is the situation that strong Korean industries are losing track, and new growth engines have to be found. There is youth unemployment and the North Korean situation. I think he is really managing many things at the same time."

Zollmann noted that the work of the government has so many aspects, but one of the most important things is to balance the situation between different goals such as narrowing the income gap and encouraging companies to create jobs.

Meanwhile, the president and CEO of the KGCCI took a cautious attitude when talking about suspected emissions-rigging software involving Mercedes-Benz and Audi diesel cars.

After the German government imposed recalls of Mercedes-Benz and Audi diesel cars over the issue in June, Korea's environment ministry began its own investigation later that month, with the results expected to be announced within the year.

"There has been an emissions-related investigation in Germany. My understanding is that the Korean government picks this up because the law in Korea is the same in relation to emissions standards," she said. "We expect the Korean government is handling this in a proper way, but I cannot say anything on this situation of specific companies."

She stressed German companies have done a lot in order to satisfy the needs of Korean customers and keep and gain their trust.

"They have extended their reach to customers by opening more workshops and have the R&D in Korea. They invest a lot in employment and in the Ausbildung vocational training," she said. "I don't think that customer experience is only overshadowed by these topics but they look at many other reasons to buy and be loyal to German cars."


Zollmann said Korea has a highly developed education system producing many with academic degrees and very intelligent people, but companies sometime notice that skills people bring from universities are not always what are needed in companies because they need more problem solving capabilities or more practical skills.

She said this is why the KGCCI is working on the Ausbildung program, a dual vocational training system that has a long tradition in Germany.

Students participating in the program officially sign a contract with dealerships with brands such as BMW Group Korea and Mercedes-Benz Korea, and gain both academic education and practical on-site training at the same time.

Participants who successfully complete the three-year program are highly qualified auto mechanics who will work at the official service centers of the brands.

"We brought it to Korea so that companies can build the knowledge they want the people to have while employing them," she said. "I think people have different interests and capabilities. We have to have offers about how they can approach their career. In this sense the Korean education system is very rigid. It is focused on certain areas, and it does not give too much credit to other career paths. That's something we hope to change."

Zollmann said though the program is currently being received exceptionally well in Korea, she did not expect this in 2013 when she had discussions with various companies and organizations on whether it was possible to bring the program to Korea as it seemed not to be well recognized here.

But two years after the program was started, the Korean people's perceptions started changing, and parents were very open to it too, she said.

"They now see the value in this program and are happy to participate," she said, adding that schools such as automotive high schools are also actively participating in the program.

To better implement this in Korea, the KGCCI has been making efforts to adapt the curriculum to the Korean way of doing business and keep all the players, such as companies, schools and trainees, working together in stringent coordination.

On July 4, the KGCCI signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with five Korean ministries including the Ministry of Strategy and Finance to expand the Ausbildung program.

Other ministries are the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Employment and Labor, the Ministry of Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) and Startups and the Military Manpower Administration.

The KGCCI and the five government ministries agreed to discuss various measures to encourage and support business participation in leading work-based learning programs.

"There is a huge interest from the Korean government because they have seen that this program can do many things," Zollmann said. "On the one hand, it addresses youth unemployment because we take graduates from high schools into this program. It is a very beneficial for young people and something that the government recognizes and would like to see the program expand to more professions and more companies. That is the idea of the MOU singing."

The participation of the Military Manpower Administration in the MOU signing was meaningful as it makes sure that students participating in the Ausbildung program _ 90 in the first generation and 210 in the next generation _ are drafted at the same time, which makes it easier for them to continue their education.

All able-bodied South Korean men must serve in the military for about two years as the nation is technically still at war with North Korea.

"We also want to make sure that if possible they get into the military section where they can apply their knowledge and maybe build on it," Zollmann said.

Zollmann also stressed the importance of career opportunities for women, saying efforts should be given to the support balancing family and work.

"Just because we think the idea of women is important, we started a women's group here in the KGCCI," she said. "We have a nice group of women executives together, not only Germans but a little bit more international and cross industry."

She said the aim of the group is to help women proceed further in their careers and answer all their questions about balancing work and life.

"We hope to contribute so more woman can be successful in business," she said.


Zollmann said Korea and Germany have maintained good relations, and also there are potential benefits for more areas for them to work together, especially in the areas that are ripe for innovation.

"Without innovation, there would not be any advancement of mankind and the economy too," she said. "When you look at Korea and Germany, they are both highly developed countries so you cannot rely on cheap products. You have to convince your customers by bringing cutting edge technology. That is why innovation is really at a break point in all companies."

Regarding the recent situation involving relations between South and North Korea as well as those between the United States and North Korea, Zollmann said everybody is excited about looking at the development and probably thinks of the economic opportunities this might bring in the future.

But she added that there are still lingering questions about North Korea's willingness for denuclearization and to what extent the North wants to open and provide opportunities for businesses to come in.

"Before this clarifies, we cannot do much, but of course for Germans, there is an emotional touch because there was a situation of separated countries," she said. "So, we really wish for the Korean people that improvements can be made and people will get the chance to interchange. That is my big wish."

Jun Ji-hye jjh@koreatimes.co.kr

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