This country wanted a 69-hour work week

By Yash Neharkar                            

Some countries are adopting shorter work weeks to improve mental health and productivity, but at least one hasn't.

After millennials and generation Z workers protested, the South Korean government had to reconsider a plan to raise the weekly work limit to 69 from 52.

According to the OECD, workers in the east Asian powerhouse economy worked the fourth-longest hours in2021, behind Mexico, Costa Rica, and Chile. Overwork (gwarosa) is thought to kill scores of people each year.

The government had supported the cap increase after business groups pressured it to boost productivity, but the younger generation and labour unions opposed it.

After listening to public opinion, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's senior secretary said Wednesday the government would take a new "direction" and protect millennial, generation Z, and non-union workers' rights.

Due to the world's lowest fertility rate and ageing population, raising the cap was seen as a way to address the labour shortage.

Critics said tightening the screws on workers would worsen the country's demographic problems, which experts attribute to its demanding work culture and rising disillusionment among younger generations.

The National Assembly overwhelmingly supported lowering the limit from 68 hours a week to 52 in 2018 due to popular demand.

Critics say many workers are pressured to work longer than the 40 hours and 12 hours of compensated overtime allowed by law.

"The proposal is illogical..." and is so far from what workers actually want,” said Jung Junsik, 25, a university student from Seoul, adding that even with the government's U-turn, many workers would still be pressured to work beyond the legal maximum.

“My father works excessively every week and there is no boundary between work and life,” he said. “Sadly, this is common in the workplace. Labor inspectors cannot monitor every workplace 24/7. Overtime work will kill South Koreans.”