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Seoul, South Korea

Shorter work weeks to boost employee mental health and productivity may be catching on in some places around the world, but at least one country appears to have missed the memo.

The South Korean government was this week forced to rethink a plan that would have raised its cap on working hours to 69 per week, up from the current limit of 52, after sparking a backlash among millennials and generation Z workers.

Workers in the east Asian powerhouse economy already face some of the longest hours in the world – ranking fourth behind only Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile in 2021, according to the OECD – and death by overwork (“gwarosa”) is thought to kill scores of people every year.

Yet the government had backed the plan to increase the cap following pressure from business groups seeking a boost in productivity – until, that is, it ran into vociferous opposition from the younger generation and labor unions.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s senior secretary said Wednesday the government would take a new “direction” after listening to public opinion and said it was committed to protecting the rights and interests of millennial, generation Z and non-union workers.

Raising the cap had been seen as a way of addressing the looming labor shortage the country faces due to its dwindling fertility rate, which is the world’s lowest, and its aging population.

But the move was widely panned by critics who argued tightening the screw on workers would only make matters worse; experts frequently cite the country’s demanding work culture and rising disillusionment among younger generations as driving factors in its demographic problems.

It was only as recently as 2018 that, due to popular demand, the country had lowered the limit from 68 hours a week to the current 52 – a move that at the time received overwhelming support in the National Assembly.

The current law limits the work week to 40 hours plus up to 12 hours of compensated overtime – though in reality, critics say, many workers find themselves under pressure to work longer.

“The proposal does not make any sense… and is so far from what workers actually want,” said Jung Junsik, 25, a university student from the capital Seoul who added that even with the government’s U-turn, many workers would still be pressured to work beyond the legal maximum.

“My own father works excessively every week and there is no boundary between work and life,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is quite common in the workforce. Labor inspectors cannot watch every workplace 24/7. South Korean people will (remain) vulnerable to deadly overtime work.”

Pedestrians in downtown Seoul.

According to the OECD, South Koreans worked an average 1,915 hours in 2021, far above the OECD average of 1,716 and the American average of 1,767.

Long hours – alongside high levels of education and an increase in women entering the workforce – were once widely credited as fueling the country’s remarkable economic growth following the Korean War in the 1950s, when it went from being a poor economy to one of the world’s richest.

However, critics say the flipside to those long hours can be seen clearly in the scores of “gwarosa” cases – “death by overwork” – in which exhausted people pay with their lives through heart attacks, industrial accidents or sleep-deprived driving.

Haein Shim, a spokeswoman for the Seoul-based feminist group Haeil, said the country’s rapid growth and economic success had come at a cost and the proposal to extend working hours reflected the government’s “reluctance to acknowledge the realities of South Korean society.”

She said “isolation and lack of community stemming from long work hours and intense workdays” was already taking its toll on many workers and “insane work hours will further exacerbate challenges faced by Korean women.”

In addition to gwarosa cases, the country also has the highest suicide rate among developed nations, according to data from the National Statistical Office, she pointed out.

“It is crucial for the government (and companies) to address pressing issues that are already affecting lives,” Shim said. “The need for support and a healthy work life balance cannot be overlooked if we are to ensure the well-being of individuals with the reality of the highest suicide rate in the OECD.”

In 2017, the year before the government reduced the cap on working hours, hundreds of people died due to overwork, according to government data. Even when the limit was cut to 52 hours, cases of “gwarosa” continued to make the headlines. In 2020, labor unions said 14 delivery workers had died due to overwork, having sacrificed their mental health and well-being to keep the country going during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

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