[Documents menu] Documents menu

Social changes are seen in move to 5-day week

By Lim Bong-soo, JoongAng Ilbo, 24 May 2002

I used to sleep the whole weekend, but these days I study a foreign language on Saturday morning and go to a concert with my wife in the evening, said Kim Seong-sik, describing how the introduction of a five-day workweek has changed his lifestyle.

The five-day workweek is taking root in Korea. On Wednesday, management and labor unions at the nation's 26 financial institutions agreed to adopt a five-day workweek, perhaps as early as July. Large business groups and other industries are expected to follow suit, albeit grudgingly in some cases.

Public servants have been on a 40-hour plan since the end of last month as a test case for demonstrate its feasibility for industry—or perhaps a better description would be that it was a government spur to force industry into line.

Once the five-day workweek becomes established in our society, it will bring major changes not only to life patterns but also to people's ways of thinking, one economist said. The reduced work hours will be a revolution.

The introduction of a five-day workweek will increase the average number of days that a worker has off from 92 to 144 a year, according to estimates by the tripartite government, labor and management commission that oversees labor relations in Korea.

Koreans have been notorious workaholics. They worked an average of 2,497 hours in 1999, seventh-highest among the International Labor Organization's 75 member countries, according to a survey by the labor group.

Koreans will soon put in about the same number of hours as workers in other developed countries, however. Economists and labor experts warn that they should expect more intensive work days when their hours are reduced.

I come to work at 9 a.m. and leave the office at 6 p.m., said Kwon Byeong-yeong, a manager at Arthur Andersen, a consulting firm that already works five days a week. Except for a short lunch break, everyday work is really hectic. His colleagues rarely find time to drink coffee and read newspapers at work, Mr. Kwon added.

As Korean society adjusts to a shorter workweek, the typical weekend for Korean families will also be transformed. When the five-day workweeks began, I would drink with my coworkers every Friday until very late, but that no longer happens, said Kim Chang-su, an employee at LG Caltex, which cut its workweek in 1999.

Data from developed countries show that workers often spend additional money on their extra days off, according to Choi Suk-hee, a researcher from the Samsung Economic Research Institute.

As people get used to the system, they tend to use their weekends for time-consuming activities such as travel, the arts and literature.

More than 40 percent of the adult population watched television during their leisure time, while another 29 percent slept or did housework, according to a poll that the National Statistical Office conducted late last year. Koreans will begin to adopt a family-oriented lifestyle, escaping from their work-oriented lives, Kim Sung-teak of the Korea Labor Institute said. People will now have to find leisure activities that fit their tastes.

Five-day workweeks will also produce more jobs in the tourism, culture, leisure and education industries, economists forecast. In 1992, the year after Korea reduced its statutory workweek to 44 hours, employment in these industries increased by 4.7 percent.

Companies will have to depend on manpower outsourcing in most parts of their businesses, said Lee Ji-pyung, a researcher at the LG Economic Research Institute. More and more part-time workers, women and the elderly will be hired in the work force. Mr. Lee said he expects that a new type of service industry will emerge to take care of housework after the five-day workweek is established.

Reduced work hours will encourage activities of civic groups and volunteer work, a government official said. It will promote grassroots democracy in Korea and increase the transparency of government administration and politics.

Not everyone is optimistic about five-day workweek, however. The business community is still worried about cost increases related to change and the impact it will have on national competitiveness.

Employees may not concentrate fully on Friday because of their anticipation of the weekend, and on Monday because of fatigue from their weekend trip, said an official at the Korea Employers Federation, perhaps unwittingly echoing a joke popular around Western office water coolers. Unless the system is run properly, productivity will not improve, although the work hours are reduced. Worker morale in primary industries and small companies would also drop, he warned.

Due to unfavorable business conditions, I could not give the promised holidays to our plant workers, an owner of a small company in Bupyeong said. I fear more demands by the labor union.

Management-labor cooperation is needed to boost productivity, Hur Jai-Joon of the Korea Labor Institute said. That is why the government's role is important at this stage.