|A citizen walks past a television broadcasting President Yoon Suk Yeol's Cabinet meeting speech at Seoul Station, March 21. During the speech, Yoon said he believes working longer than 60 hours per week is undesirable in terms of protecting employees' health. Yonhap
Workweek reform plan likely to fizzle out
By Nam Hyun-woo
President Yoon Suk Yeol's drive to reform the country's labor system and work culture is losing steam, due to mounting criticism over the government's ill-fated attempt to lengthen the legal cap on the workweek.
After the plan became hugely controversial, Yoon set a guideline on the maximum number of weekly work hours during a Cabinet meeting on March 21. But that was not enough to ease complaints as some workers' unions, which initially supported the president's efforts to rein in labor groups by requiring them to reveal their financial records, are now turning their backs on the leader.
During the Cabinet meeting, Yoon said he still believes "working longer than 60 hours per week is undesirable in terms of protecting (employees') health" and that "it will be difficult to protect employees' health unless there is a cap in the workweek."
|Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions stage a surprise demonstration during a meeting between Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jung-sik, center, and labor union leaders at the Seoul Regional Employment and Labor Office in Seoul, March 15. Yonhap
120 hours, 92 hours, 69 hours, 60 hours and now what?
The comment on the 60-hour workweek was only the latest in a series of suggestions as the government flip-flopped on the issue of setting a new cap, which has placed a certain level of uncertainty on domestic businesses.
Currently, Korea has a 52-hour statutory workweek ― a 40-hour basic workweek plus 12 hours of overtime. Yoon has been arguing that the system should be overhauled because it harms labor flexibility and causes difficulties for businesses.
When he was a presidential hopeful in July 2021, Yoon said in a media interview that the 52-hour workweek system had failed and added that "employees should be able to work 120 hours a week and then rest as much as they can," citing the computer game industry as an example.
This was interpreted as Yoon's intention to raise the cap on working hours to 120 hours, casting doubts over its feasibility. Yoon later said that the 120-hour figure was just an example, and his intention was to provide choices, not only for employers but also employees.
In June 2022, Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jung-sik proposed changing the unit for calculating the overtime limit from a week to a month. In this case, a total of 52 hours of overtime is possible in a month, meaning the maximum workweek can increase to 92 hours ― 40 hours of basic workweek plus 52 hours of monthly overtime ― although the number will go down in the remaining weeks of the month.
This also triggered controversy, forcing the president to tell reporters that it is not the government's final draft.
On March 6, the labor ministry made a pre-announcement of legislation, a stage in which the government listens to public opinion before tabling a bill to the National Assembly, on its plan to overhaul the workweek system, allowing employers and employees to determine whether to calculate their maximum overtime monthly, quarterly, half-yearly or on an annual basis.
If a company decides to manage overtime on a yearly basis, employees will work a maximum of 440 hours of overtime a year. Since Korea's law currently requires employers to give 12.5 hours of rest between working days and a day off in a week when employees work eight hours or longer a day, the proposed new maximum workweek will be 69 hours.
The government says the 69-hour limit takes into account "very extraordinary cases" and the average workweek for a year will likely stand at 48.5 hours. But that failed to prevent a backlash from labor unions, opposition parties and the general public, who all doubt whether they can get enough rest in the remaining weeks as the government suggests.
|A citizen places a sticker to oppose the government's workweek overhaul plan during a survey held by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions at Cheonggye Plaza near Cheonggye Stream in downtown Seoul, March 22. Newsis
Amid the controversy, Yoon instructed his aides on March 14 to "review the workweek proposal" by "listening to public opinion during the pre-announcement period."
On March 16, Ahn Sang-hoon, senior presidential secretary for social affairs, told reporters that Yoon "is well aware that it is impossible to work more than 60 hours a week even if (a person) works overtime."
There is a legal precedent in Korea of assuming a 60-hour workweek as a cause of death by overwork.
However, another senior presidential secretary told reporters on March 20 that "there is no reason for the public to consider 60 hours as the upper limit" and that "surpassing 60 hours will be possible."
As this once again triggered confusion and uncertainty, the president told the Cabinet that he believes the 60-hour workweek figure should be the cap.
|A ruling People Power Party lawmaker, left, hangs a poster supporting President Yoon Suk Yeol's workweek reform plan, while a main opposition Democratic Party of Korea lawmaker hangs a poster opposing the plan during a National Assembly meeting on Yeouido, Seoul, March 21. Yonhap
The confusing announcements by the government and the presidential office have even led businesses here, which have been seeking the workweek overhaul, to also start raising doubts.
"Although there is a reason for establishing the workweek system, the constant U-turns in reaction to public sentiment are casting uncertainties," an official at a domestic conglomerate said. "There were positive outlooks when Yoon came up with the idea of reforming the country's labor system and work culture. However, with more difficult tasks remaining, pessimism is growing."
The workweek overhaul is part of the Yoon administration's initiative to reform labor, education and pensions ― three issues that Korea has been struggling with.
Of them, the fastest progress was occurring in labor reform.
Yoon signaled his labor reforms with his hardline response to the militant truckers' unions, which illegally blocked entry into major logistics hubs last year. As this drew favorable responses, Yoon went on to demand the country's large unions boost their financial transparency, slam some construction unions' practices of receiving kickbacks and criticizing some labor unions' political campaigns.
Despite union opposition, these moves helped Yoon's job approval rating to hover above the 40 percent mark in some surveys, convincing the presidential office that the administration was on the right track.
Against this backdrop, the Refresh Workers' Council, a new union group comprised of the so-called MZ Generation, Millennials and Generation Z, was established in February, raising criticism over existing union practices and political campaigns.
The government began to recognize the council as "a counterpart" of president's labor reforms, with Yoon saying on March 14 that the government "should listen to the opinions of the MZ generation" regarding labor reforms.
However, the council expressed its opinion on the 69-hour workweek plan and again reiterated its stance that it opposes a 60-hour workweek, during a meeting between the labor minister and the council's Chairman Yoo Joon-hwan, on March 22.
With conventional unions, the MZ generation union and the general public all raising doubts about the workweek proposal, Yoon's approval rating has been negatively impacted in recent weeks due largely to the workweek controversy and his recent summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
According to a March 13 to 17 poll by Realmeter, Yoon's approval rating stood at 36.8 percent, down 2.1 percentage points from a week earlier. The poll surveyed 2,505 adults on a request by Media Tribune and further details are available on the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission's website.
"Reforming the country's workweek system was the crux of Yoon's labor reforms, because the highlight of the reform initiative was adding more flexibility to the country's labor culture," political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon said.
"It is true that the government and the presidential office caused more confusion with numbers, but this issue was a matter of public and political controversies from the beginning. Given that an overhaul plan requires National Assembly voting amid strong opposition from the public and the opposition, the Yoon administration should have approached this more delicately, finding a middle ground where the opposition and employees can agree," Rhee added.
He noted that there were objections within the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) in 2018 when then-President Moon Jae-in pushed to achieve the 52-hour workweek due to the rigidness of the limit, while there could have been a middle ground that draws less public criticism if the current presidential office spoke with the DPK and sounded out public opinion in advance.
Including Rhee, many experts compare the ongoing workweek controversy to the government's attempt to lower the legal age to enter elementary schools from six to five last year. Not only did the initiative forego any screening by lawmakers, but it also provoked the mass anger of parents, educators and politicians who opposed it, resulting in then-Education Minister Park Soon-ae to resign.
"Given the case of the elementary school entry age, the workweek reform effort will likely fizzle out," Rhee said. "Whatever plan the government comes up with, it became difficult for Yoon's intention to add flexibility to the work culture getting acknowledged by the public."
Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University, said he believes Yoon will continue his labor reform crusade, especially related to the militant unions, but the issue of the workweek was "completely derailed" due to "an amateurish communication process."