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[News Focus] Will four-day workweek become a reality?

Seoul mayoral candidates compete to reduce number of workdays, boost work-life balance

Feb. 17, 2021 - 15:00 By Ko Jun-tae
Workers head back to their offices in Jung District, central Seoul, nearing the end of their lunch break on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
A four-day workweek is emerging as a hot-button campaign issue as Seoul mayoral candidates promise a compressed work schedule ahead of the April by-elections, with debate ensuing as to whether the pledge is realistic and economically viable for South Korea and its capital.

Former SMEs Minister Park Young-sun said in a meeting earlier this month that she wants to introduce a 4.5-day workweek for Seoul citizens if she wins the Seoul mayor seat in the coming months. Park has so far been picked as the most favored candidate in polls.

“The 4.5-day workweek is related to a number of welfare problems including job loss for the younger generation, quality of life for women and the struggles of raising and nurturing children,” she said during the meeting.

“I want to use that agenda to create a new framework for a great transition for the city of Seoul.”

Rep. Cho Jung-hoon, head of the minor anti-establishment political party Transition Korea, has actively advocated a four-day workweek since announcing his bid for the Seoul mayoral seat in December.

It is his major campaign promise, and he argues that it would offer a better work-life balance for citizens while creating more jobs. If successfully implemented, it could also benefit companies, Cho said.

“Almost all corporations, including those from Korea, saw their productivity rate rise 20 percent (after transitioning to a four-day workweek schedule),” Cho said in a radio interview this month, citing a research paper.

“We would be providing a number of tax incentives and consultative work to motivate small and medium-sized companies considering the transition.”

Woo Sang-ho, another contender from the ruling party for the Seoul mayoral seat, agreed the topic was worth discussing but said such a plan would not be viable in real life at this moment.

A four-day workweek has been the subject of discussion for years, but has only gained traction in the past several years. Dozens of foreign companies have experimented with systems that allow for shorter work hours.

The idea has been promoted as a possible solution to Korean workers’ notoriously long working hours, with the country ranking second after Mexico for the longest working hours in a 2016 OECD report.

Some local companies have introduced a four-day workweek for their employees as a unique benefit.

SK Group since 2019 has allowed some of its affiliates’ employees to work four days a week every other week, and Woowa Brothers, operator of food delivery app Baemin, effectively offers a 4.5-day workweek by letting employees take Monday mornings off.

Guaranteeing Seoulites a four-day workweek would require legislative change at the national level -- something that is not within the power of a city mayor.

For that reason, the two candidates have advocated incentive programs along with consultative and financial support to prompt companies to cut down on the number of workdays.

Yet the measure still faces many roadblocks ahead to truly become institutionalized, as the system cannot exactly work for businesses of all sectors. Furthermore, Korea has yet to fully institutionalize the 52-hour maximum workweek system.

People have also warned that abruptly introducing such a system could cause turbulence in the labor market, cutting employees’ wages and forcing them to find additional wage-earning opportunities, which could undermine the productivity rate for employees and firms alike.

Critics also say shorter workdays could take away job opportunities from those in need, as increasing numbers of people would prefer to commit to two jobs simultaneously.

Korea saw its unemployment rate in January jump to 5.4 percent, the highest level since the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis. The number of employed people reached 25.8 million, 982,000 less than recorded a year earlier.

“Some people are already concerned for their livelihoods as they can’t even find part-time jobs, so how is this 4.5-day workweek even possible?” asked former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon, who is running against Park and Cho for the Seoul mayoral seat, in a Facebook post earlier this month.

“It is absolutely unclear to whom this concept will be practiced. It wouldn’t make sense to put Seoul’s civil servants on a 4.5-day workweek, so does that mean the target would be private companies based in Seoul?”

By Ko Jun-tae (