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최종편집 : 2019.10.10 목 18:58
CoverControversial Issues
Expert OpinionLee Byung-Hoon - Professor of Department of Sociology at Chung-Ang University
Sim Seong-a  |  tlatjddk2019@cau.ac.kr
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승인 2019.10.04  15:47:30
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The current administration is aiming to reduce working hours in earnest. As a result, the 52-hour workweek system was first prepared as the revision of the Labor Standards Act was passed in February 2018. Previously, workers were allowed to work two extra hours even after working eight hours on weekdays. In addition, it was socially acceptable to work up to 68 hours a week because they could work on weekends. The revision, however, calls for a cap of up to 52 hours of legal work per week.
So, what's behind the emergence of the 52-hour workweek? For nearly two decades, South Korea has been stigmatized as the longest working-hour country in the OECD. According to OECD Employment Outlook, South Korea has the second-longest average annual working hours per worker after Mexico. Also, the average Korean worker works about 2,000 hours a year, according to the report. In contrast, however, the rest of the OECD countries work an average of 1,600 hours, especially in Germany, only about 1,300 hours. In other words, the long-term labor problem in Korean society is already widely known internationally.
This long-term labor issue creates the problem of depriving job opportunities. If a person works for an excessive amount of time, this will lead to job monopolization, which in turn will only exacerbate the problem of job shortages. If we cut working hours per worker, however, we can distribute that amount of work to multiple workers. This concept is called the 'job sharing effect'. Also, prolonged labor not only reduces workers' labor productivity but also highlights the risks of industrial disasters due to increased fatigue. Currently, Korean workers are overworked to the point that Korea is said to be a ‘workaholic society’, and this has created a social atmosphere that values work-life balance. The long-time labor climate has helped Korea achieve rapid economic growth in a short period of time. It is clear, however, that the sacrifice of workers have occurred in the process.
Korea's employment indicators are worsening despite the incumbent administration's heavy investment on job creation pledges. With the recent rise in the minimum wage coupled with the recession, companies are reluctant to hire workers. Thus, the Labor Standards Act was revised in February last year, but the government allowed companies to have a grace period for implementation by size to cushion the impact it would have on the domestic industry. Until early this year, the government did not impose any significant sanctions on companies which did not implement the 52-hour workweek system. The revision will take effect in earnest from July this year for businesses with 300 employees or more, and from 2020 for small businesses with 50 to 299 employees. However, the immediate implementation of the revision from next year comes as a heavy burden for small and medium-sized companies at a time when the Korean economy is unstable due to the continued recession. Therefore, many companies are expressing opposition to the 52-hour workweek and calling for deregulation.
In conclusion, the 52-hour workweek is necessary for our society. However, if a particular industry is experiencing real difficulties, a moratorium or relaxation on the system is required for those industry-related companies. One concern is that despite the lack of clear reasons, companies could exploit it to hope only to ease or set special cases. Therefore, it is necessary for the government to properly grasp the difficulties that a particular industry is currently experiencing and adjust recognized problems through consultation with representatives of companies and workers.
The 52-hour workweek is now a social issue because workers and businesses take an obvious confrontational stance in working hours. Therefore, groups of workers and businesses must go through the consultation process. In the 1960s, concessions and sacrifices by workers were taken for granted due to the logic of prioritizing corporate growth. But now that society has changed, this logic must be changed. If companies fully explain that fatal difficulties are occurring in the industry, the workers' groups will be able to recognize them and discuss adjustments through consultation. But unilaterally forcing workers to make concessions without going through such a process is feared to provoke a backlash from. Thus, the implementation of a reduction in working hours is necessary but should be carried out on the basis of detailed coordination and supplementation of the system after sufficient dialogue between labor and management.
 
   
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