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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on March 22)

All News 07:00 March 22, 2023

Still in the woods
Government must withdraw longer workweek plan

Confusion continues within the Yoon Suk Yeol administration over its plan for an extended workweek.

Last week, startled by a strong reaction from workers, especially younger ones, to a maximum 69-hour workweek, the president stepped back. "I think working more than 60 hours a week is too much," he said to aides. "Put a cap on it."

Yoon provided no grounds for the new upper limit. Despite, or because of it, the presidential office said Monday that the weekly working hours could "exceed 60 hours by gathering more opinions."

Are they playing around with this crucial issue for a countless number of workers?

As with most other matters, the ongoing fuss about the new workweek shows how unprepared this government is and how it is indifferent to what people think and want. According to a 2022 survey by a government think tank, Koreans wanted to work even less than the legal 40 hours ― 36.7 hours a week. Among workers in their 20s, it was 34.9 hours.

That means Yoon and his aides hoped they could please the MZ generation ― millennials and Generation Z ― workers by forcing them to toil almost twice as long as they wanted. Policymakers tell them to work hard for a few months and get a long vacation or a sabbatical month. However, for 80 percent of Korean workers, employers often make it difficult or impossible for them to use the 15 days of annual leave that they are legally entitled to, and they have to be content with a weeklong or five-day (excluding weekends) vacation.

Voters know the revised workweek idea came from the president himself. They remember he encouraged working 120 hours as a candidate. Yoon cited the need in IT industries like game developers or entertainment businesses requiring extensive work for a period. However, they are a fraction of the workforce. Yoon was responding to calls from employers, especially exporters of labor-intensive goods and industries, to "use their employees more flexibly" to meet shipment deadlines.

Yoon respects ex-President Park Chung-hee's export-driven policy, presiding over monthly export-promotion meetings. Welcome back to the 1960s and 70s. Exports have been and will be the main growth engine for this small, resource-poor country. In the 21st century, however, not production but productivity matters, and outbound shipment volume should give way to export profitability. Even in traditional manufacturing, the all-toil-no-rest environment pulls down efficiency. Workers, including migrant laborers, leave shipyards in droves, escaping "murderous labor."

We don't feel the need to repeat how Korea ranks fifth among OECD member countries when it comes to annual working hours. All foreign media outlets know that. Some even know the word "kwarosa," which means death from overwork. Japan has its own word, "karoshi." However, the country has changed long ago. "Working excessively long hours is frowned upon in Japan," the Washington Post quoted a Japanese professor as saying in a Seoul-datelined story. "South Korea should seek to increase productivity, not working hours." Until when should Koreans remain the only people who can make the Japanese appear lazy?

Management gurus say future growth comes from creativity, which, in turn, comes from rest. In Korea, however, rest, along with a little more equitable redistribution of wealth, is essential to keep the economy ― or the country ― going. What do Korea's highest suicide rate and lowest birthrate worldwide say? Does the increasing number of youngsters who don't seek jobs have nothing to do with this harsh environment? Can working parents leave their children to feed and take care of themselves?

Conservative leaders, including President Yoon, who embody the logic of old capitalists, knowingly or not, should wake up. In some European countries, including the United Kingdom and Iceland, governments are experimenting with a four-day workweek and found little output reduction and greater worker satisfaction. In the coming century, most industrialized countries do not seek gross national product (GDP) but gross national happiness (GNH). And the latter guarantees not only more happiness but faster growth as well.

Many Koreans just want to be less unhappy.

The government must drop its new workweek scheme.

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