The South Korean government’s controversial proposal to increase the maximum work week from 52 to 69 hours has sparked intense debates over work-life balance, worker’s rights, and the issue of overwork or ‘kwarosa‘ – death from overwork. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration argues that the plan aims to provide greater flexibility for workers and address the country’s declining birth rates. However, opposition politicians, labor unions, and women’s groups contend that the proposal would exacerbate South Korea’s notoriously demanding work culture and jeopardize workers’ health and well-being.
South Koreans worked an average of 1,915 hours in 2021, significantly surpassing the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. The proposed changes would permit employees to work up to 69 hours per week, including up to 29 hours of overtime when calculating periods of a month or longer. The legislation faces opposition in the National Assembly from the Democratic Party, who introduced the 52-hour work week in 2018.
Critics of the plan argue that extending working hours will not resolve the country’s low birthrate issue and may even contribute to “population extinction.” The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has criticized the proposal for potentially allowing employees to work from 9 am to midnight for five consecutive days, with little regard for their health and well-being.
The debate over work hours in South Korea highlights broader concerns about overwork and work culture in Asia. China’s “996” work culture, for instance, sees employees working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week, often without adequate compensation. Japan has long struggled with karoshi, prompting government intervention and the introduction of the Work Style Reform Bill in 2018 to address the issue.
This heated debate in South Korea serves as a reminder of the deep-rooted issues surrounding overwork and the need for reevaluating work-life balance policies in Asia. As countries like the UK experiment with four-day work weeks, resulting in improved productivity and employee well-being, it is time for Asian nations to seriously consider the implications of their work culture on citizens’ health and quality of life.