Opinion
[Editorial] Imperative reform
Minister unveils flexible work hours plan; Yoon says announcement not official yet
Published : Jun 27, 2022 - 05:30
Updated : Jun 27, 2022 - 05:30
Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jeong-sik announced “directions for labor market reform” on Thursday. The most significant innovation concerned the country‘s 52-hour workweek.

The ministry will review an option of allowing employers to calculate overtime on a monthly basis. Currently, it is calculated by the week.

This scheme is not mandatory, but premised on labor agreements at individual places of work.

The existing Labor Standards Act stipulates a workweek cannot exceed 40 hours, exclusive of overtime and rest time. Overtime can be extended to a maximum of 12 hours a week. The 52-hour workweek was introduced in 2018.

Under the proposed plan, employees could work overtime within a range of 48-60 hours per month, depending on whether a month has four or five weeks.

Companies have demanded that the current 52-hour workweek law should allow for flexibility. Under the existing system, meeting a deadline when orders rush in is difficult. R&D employees sometimes need to work overtime intensively. Young workers increasingly prefer abiding by their autonomous schedules. Most countries have work hours that are calculated monthly or yearly. The 52-hour workweek needs to be adjusted to offer flexibility.

A day after the ministry’s announcement, President Yoon Suk-yeol said that it was not an official government position yet. He made the remark to a reporter‘s question on his way to work at the Yongsan presidential office.

The ministry’s policy stems from Yoon‘s election pledge to reform the system. It was also presented as part of the new government’s economic policies, which were reported to Yoon on June 16.

At the time, Yoon said that he had yet to be debriefed on the reports that were circulating in the media.

With confusion mounting, an official of the presidential office said that Yoon thought that the media was reporting on the government‘s final decision, which had yet to be confirmed.

While Yoon’s initial comments were effectively overturned, they stained the minister‘s authority and left many wondering again how the issue would turn out.

South Korea’s rigid labor market is often cited as a chronic problem that weakens the country‘s international competitiveness.

Labor reform is one of Yoon’s three policy-change promises, along with pension and educational reforms.

A change in the workweek would affect the lives of many workers. To avoid causing unnecessary confusion, Yoon needs to be careful in answering reporters‘ questions at the doorstep of his office.

In the policy road map unveiled by the Labor Ministry, there is no mention of labor relations, which many believe are lopsided in favor of unions. Companies desperately want laws and systems that will prevent habitual and violent strikes. They want the government to allow them to hire substitute workers during a strike and prevent strikers from occupying business establishments. Labor unions recently held violent rallies at industrial sites, but the new government’s response was passive. Union members of Hyundai Steel have been illegally occupying the CEO‘s office of Dangjin Works for more than 20 days now, demanding an increase in wages and bonuses.

Overtime being calculated by the month in the framework of the 52-hour workweek wouldn’t affect the amount of total overtime they could work.

But the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions strongly opposes such change, arguing it will incapacitate the 52-hour workweek itself.

Flexible work hours are essential in raising the country‘s competitiveness in the “fourth industrial revolution.” The drive to reform the workweek must not fizzle out.

The road to a flexible labor market looks rough. Unions oppose flexible work hours, and the pro-labor main opposition Democratic Party of Korea holds a parliamentary majority. And yet it is imperative to make work hours flexible and restore the power balance between labor and management.

The Yoon government recently accepted almost all of the demands by Cargo Truckers Solidarity in order to end their general strike quickly.

If the government steps back for fear of a backlash from unions or groups with vested interests, reform will be impossible not only in labor but also in pension and education.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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