Opinion & Analysis

The culture of overwork in South Korea

South Korea implemented a law to combat overwork in March 2018. New Zealand researcher Dylan Stent makes some observations about the country’s working culture.

OPINION: In March 2018, the South Korean National Assembly passed a law that reduced the maximum working week from 68 hours to 52 hours. 

The law change was designed to improve living conditions, create jobs and increase productivity in a country known for overworking.

The new rules currently apply only to companies with more than 300 employees, but will be extended to all companies with more than 50 employees in two years. Small- and medium-sized businesses will need to abide by the new law by 2020

Not everyone is happy about the law change. SMEs are concerned a reduction in hours will adversely affect them as wages will increase. Many believe this may lead to smaller companies employing fewer staff.

South Korea’s intense working culture is linked to heavy drinking statistics – according to a 2014 study, the country has the most number of hard alcohol drinkers in the worldNew York Times report noted that for many South Koreans, “one of the quickest ways of building friendship and office camaraderie is to get drunk together”.

However, there are signs this trend could change.

Since the establishment of the law, bars and restaurants say they have seen a hit in revenues. Consumer data suggests a growing rise in spending on recreational activities, with spending on movies and theatre in particular rising dramatically.

Anecdotally, I can provide some evidence for these changes. While I was in South Korea in October and November, I noticed that bars appeared much emptier with fewer business groups out drinking, and theatres being full. I first lived in South Korea in 2011 until 2014, a time when bars were always full until the early hours. When I returned in 2018, many areas were silent at night and a group of us failed to find an open bar that could accommodate a larger group.

Employment is important, but quality of life and work-life balance is also important. OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría has stated South Korea has to begin looking beyond GDP figures, and start looking at other indicators that convey progress.

If working conditions continue to change, the structure of Korean society could change dramatically. Instead of working late hours and spending nights with other employees, Koreans could eat at home, spend more time with their families and friends and begin hobbies they have always dreamed of doing.

When I next visit South Korea I will be interested to see how it has changed.

Views expressed are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre