THIS YEAR, Koreans certainly have it tough. Without a weekday off to compensate for the holidays that fall on weekends, many have found themselves working incessantly for weeks. The rudderless holiday system has scraped away the red coloring of the calendars and has left Koreans yearning for an improved lineup in the following year. It comes as no surprise that statistically, Koreans work longer than any other citizenry, with non-working days at decade-low this year. So the question arises on how Korea may improve its entrenched yet stale holiday model-and the answer begins in China.
Korea-work as first priority?
Koreans are the true workaholics indeed. The current structure inevitably allows 3 to 5 of 14 statutory holidays to coincide with weekends, and this year, 4 have been lost, fostering holiday deficit and social discontent. Though working overtime seems to be a cultural norm in this country, with working hours reaching a height of 2,261 in 2007, a vast majority have voiced disapproval. A survey conducted by the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute revealed that 76.7% of participants preferred to implement substitute holidays, and 80.6% favored a substitute method in which the workers took the following Monday off if a national holiday were to fall on a weekend. Previously, until legislation prioritized the five-day work week model in 2004, Koreans worked six days a week. While this was a serious impediment to their personal lives, the former generation of workers made few complaints. Contemporary Koreans, nevertheless, are different. They prefer rest over bigger paychecks, and they covet time for their own lives and family affairs. Thus far, the system may have worked, but mounting controversy does not bode well for the future.
China-the golden holiday
China’s approach to holidays is very different. Established by the Chinese government in 1999, the Golden Week designates week-long holidays to grant its employees rest from heavy working hours. China’s public holidays currently total 11 days, which is 3 days less than that of Korea. But with both substitute holidays and substitute workdays, China’s two national holidays-Chinese Lunar New Year and National Day-enable laborers to take at least a week off from work. If a statutory holiday coincides with a weekend, the government rearranges the day to take the following weekday off, and as for the two Golden Weeks, the government replaces the surrounding weekends with substitute workdays to allow Chinese workers to indulge in a continuous seven to nine days of break. The Chinese calendar reveals plenty of three day breaks, since the overlapping holidays are substituted when they fall weekends.
The satisfaction among local workers in China suggests the benefits of China’s holiday system. A 23-year-old living in China’s Anhui province, Yang Chun-mei (Laborer, Anhui Bosaeng Co., Ltd.), says, “I am relatively satisfied with China’s holiday distribution method.” With time on hand during this year’s Labor Day, she easily took three days off to spend at the Shanghai Expo. Her colleague, Wang Hua-wei (Laborer, Anhui Bosaeng Co., Ltd.), who plans to make a family trip to Beijing during this coming National Day, says, “I am indifferent towards the current calendar but have never been dissatisfied with it.” What starkly shows is that Korea inches backward while China lurches forward to grant workers the rest they need.
The holiday effect
Given a population that tends to save more and spend less, the Chinese government has utilized holidays to boost consumer confidence. Tourist cities, for instance, Hangzhou of Zhejiang province, distributed 50,000 discount coupons to trigger a tourism boom during the National Day last year. With fiscal stimulus enticing consumer spending, the tourism industry and national economy have continuously grown even during the global economic downturn. “In the case of this year's Lunar New Year holidays, tourist arrivals rose by 14.8% while travel receipts rose by 26.9%. The Golden Week tourism in China is growing very quickly, and the seven days holiday accounts for 5% to 6.2% of the total holiday consumption in 2009,” says Huang Huang (Researcher of China Tourism Academy, China National Tourism Administration). What needs to be recognized is that a tourist boom not only triggers consumption in related industries, but also extends the city’s reputation, which can have a lasting impact on its local economy.
While direct benchmarking of China’s holiday system is unlikely, the economic outcome of implementing substitute holidays should give the Korean government pause for thought. Conventionally, Koreans take a few days off for vacation during the summer; thus, traveling is explicitly concentrated in the summer season. “With substitute holidays placed beside weekends, a spread of traveling periods can be anticipated,” says Choi Seung-mook (Research Manager, Korea Culture and Tourism Institute). According to his research, 67% of survey recipients answered they would reschedule their summer traveling if substitute holidays were employed. “In the case of this year, if holidays had been alternated, an increase in traveling activity by 37.5%, additional employment of 8.5 million, and tourist expenses of ￦2.8 billion would have been acquired,” says Choi.
What is more, reducing working hours will raise employee performance and help bring a change from merely working hard to working smart. “Plenty of research has been done which disproves the common fear that holiday compensation will generate delinquency at work,” says Kim Nam-jo (Prof., Dept. of Tourism, Hanyang Univ.). The Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) has shown that working hours stand in inverse proportion to worker productivity. “As the prior five-day work week has shown, decreased job hours correlate with increased worker ability,” says Kim.
Towards a road of progress
But the implementation may have its costs too. “Amid soaring unemployment rates as in China, hiring may be catalyzed, but in Korea, where unemployment rates are comparatively low, additional hiring is difficult to expect,” says Park Jung-dong (Prof., Dept. of International Trade, Incheon Univ.). Besides, private enterprises are likely to face escalated employment costs, and pundits have anticipated an increase in overseas visits amid a stagnation of domestic travel. With all these costs to the fore, it is substantial that the Korean government not only use the right substitute model-in terms of picking the right weekday for a swap-but also devise ancillary policies to maximize fiscal effects.
“Policies to ease touring expense, such as family sales and extending low to mid-priced lodgings, should be launched in order to secure an increase in domestic travel,” says Choi. Designing sound forms of edu-tourism and enforcing five school days a week will further ease time restrictions on family travel. These policies will minimize the harm and maximize the benefit of the holiday effect.
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It is certainly a paradox. While statutory holidays were, in part, implemented to provide workers with necessary breaks, the current system fails to achieve this. The old industrial titans of secondary businesses are dampening, and bold consumer spending was never really apparent in Korea. An increase in the holiday economy is certainly the way to establish a stable tertiary sector, promoting regional tourism and strengthening the domestic economy. This year, the average working Korean is granted 112 off-days, but a Chinese, given three less statutory holidays, is guaranteed 120. The holiday system obviously needs an overhaul, and substitute holidays seem like a viable option. But whether the Korean government will continue with its current inertia or take effective measures for change is another question.