IN LAST October, Matsuri Takahashi, a 24-year-old worker of a giant ad company, Dentsu, committed suicide. According to The Asahi Shimbun, she had been working more than 105 extra hours per month. This, however, is considered usual formany Japanese workers working in major companies. In response to raging public anger, the Japanese government is finallyrevising policies governingworkplace practices, and many companies in Japan are also setting limits in working overtime. An obsessive working culture also prevails in South Korea, where labor practices and market imperatives are even more intense than those in Japan. Working overtime is a sign of diligence, and it is considered part of the normal working culture. However, it also comes with side-effects, triggering health problems of workers and decreases in labor productivity.
Downsides of excessive working
South Korea is notorious for having some of thelongest working hours in the world. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) statistics in 2015, South Korea’s average working hours amount to 2,113 hours per year, which is 347 hours more than that of the OECD countries’ average. This means that an average South Korean worker—including full-time, part-time, and self-employed workers—works 8 to 9 hours per day. Mexico (2,228 hours) and Costa Rica (2,210 hours) are the only two OECD countries with longer working hours than South Korea. Japanese workers, on the other hand, work 1,719 hours on average, which is slightly lower than the OECD average of 1,766 hours. Japan shares similar economic structures to South Korea; both countries have export-oriented economies led by family-owned mega businesses.
Nevertheless, despite their similarities, the differences between South Korea and Japan lie in labor productivity. Long working hours is correlated with low labor productivity, which is measured by the level of output per each hour of work. TheOECD measures labor productivity by calculating the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per hour worked by all persons engaged in production. In South Korea, labor productivity in 2015 was $31.8, much lower than the OECD average of $45.9. South Korea is among the OECD countries with the lowest productivity level, ahead of only Latvia, Estonia, and Hungary. On the other hand, Japan’s labor productivity is $39.4, which is still lower than the OECD average, but significantly higher than South Korea. Also, regarding average wages in 2015, an average South Korean worker earned $33,110, compared to an average Japanese worker who earned $35,780. Meanwhile, the OECD average was $41,253. These data demonstrate that despite long working hours, South Korea’s levels of labor productivity and wages earned are still low compared to other OECD countries.
Obligation to work overtime
Working long hours is typical for theSouth Korean labor force. According to a 2013 survey on South Korea working culture,conducted by Hankyoreh with the Korea Institute of Labor Safety and Health, 8.8 million (45.7%) out of 17.4 million workers say they have almost never left work before 7 p.m., while 2.6 million (15%) of them mostly left after 9 p.m. This means that they have worked about 11 hours a day, with an extended 15 hours of work each week. The Labor Standards Act (LSA) sets the legal maximumweekly working time as 40 hours and the maximum overtime as 12 hours per week.
South Koreans work long hours for various reasons. Job Korea, a portal site for finding employment in Korea, carried out a survey in 2015, asking 572 workers their reasons for working overtime. Results showed that the primary reason for overtime working was “excessive amount of workload” (32.7%), followed by “the characteristics of the job” (17.1%) and “part of the culture of the workplace” (13.4%). Moreover, 51.6% of the surveyed workers were not paid for their overtime work. Only 22.6% received overtime pay,and most of the remainder (25.8%) received their allowances through other means, such as food coupons.
However, the primary causes for South Korea’s overtime working culture traceback to the 1960s and 1970s, when South Korea was going through great economic growth. Kim Eun-gi (Prof., Dept. of International Studies, Korea Univ.) and Park Gil-sung (Prof., Dept. of Sociology, Korea Univ.) state in their 2007 article, “Nationalism, Confucianism, work ethic and industrialization in South Korea” that working hard has been considered a social obligation as well as a patriotic and moral duty of workers since the industrialization period in South Korea. Moreover, workers were inspired to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the country’s economic development. Such perceptions on work continue into the present, and workingovertime is still considered a “natural” part of South Korea’s economic growth.
Besideslow labor productivity, working overtimealso leads to serious health problems, most notably stress and fatigue. According to the article, “Long working hours and subjective fatigue symptoms,” publishedin 2001 by Park Jung-sun, Kim Yang-ho, Chung Ho-keun and Naomi Hisanaga, long working hours lead to subjective fatigue complaints. In their research, they divided their subjects into three groups on the criteria of 60 to 70 working hours per week—less long (LLWH), longer (LWH), and much longer (MLWH) working hour groups—and compared their mean percentage scores of fatigue complaints. The results showed that daily complaints about fatigue even before going to work were higher among those working closer to 65 to 70 hours per week than those working closer to 60 hours per week. It was evident that repeated overtime work led to chronic stress and fatigue, which is also associated withless labor productivity.
“On average, I work overtime three or four days a week, and on these days, I have to work around 13 hours,” said a 24-year-old worker atSouth Korea’s biggest company, Samsung Electronics, who wished to remain anonymous. “It is quite stressful. When I work overtime, I cannot make any other plans such as meeting friends or working out. My life is just a repetition of going home and coming back to work.”
Need to root out the flaw
As overtime work is embedded deeply in South Korean culture, strictly enforcedpolicies regarding working hours and increased awareness on the drawbacksrisks of overtime are needed. Even though the LSA sets limits on the maximum overtime, the law does not specify whether hours workedduring weekends are included within the 12-hour overtime limit. This leads many workers to exceed their normal working hours during weekends.
Meanwhile, Japan is trying to achieve a more labor-friendly environment. In order to improve irregular working conditions, the government is revising the Labor Standards Law, which limits working time to 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week. Japan’s law also allows up to 45 hours of overtime working per month. Some big companies are also on their way to put stricter restrictions on their working time. Dentsu, for instance, will not be logging more than 65 hours of overtime per month from now on. The government further plans to set a cap on overtime hours as well as impose harsh penalties for firms violating the limit.
In many European countries, workers are legally paid higher wages when they work overtime, and working overtime is not considered a moral obligation or duty for the workers. In France, workers must be paid a higher hourly wagefor any time worked past35 hours per week. For the first eight hours worked overtime, they are paid 1.25 times their normal wage, and after those eight hours, they are paid 1.5 times as much. While people cannot work overtime for more than 10 hours, they can still voluntarily choose to work more, only under a collective bargaining agreement. In the United Kingdom, workers who put in extra hourscan get “time off in lieu,” meaning that they can take extra time off, in place of receiving overtime pay. Though overtime working is not common in the United Kingdom, workersbeginning a new job usually receivea strict employment contract that explains the policies for overtime.
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South Korea is notorious for its relatively nonproductive yet long, grueling working conditions. Despite the low level of labor productivity and low wages earned, South Koreans are still among those who work the longest hours in the world. More problematic is that even though many experts in business, economics and government are aware of the negative correlation between overtime and labor productivity, working excessive hours is still one of the most common problems facing South Korean workers today. It is time to reverse this inefficient and inhumane working culture.