“Working over Sixty Hours a Week Is Unreasonable,” President Yoon Suggests a Cap on Working Hours

Yoo Jeong-in 2023. 3. 17. 13:21
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President Yoon Suk-yeol boards the presidential jet to attend a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam-si, Gyeonggi on March 16. President Yoon will embark on a two-day trip to Japan from March 16-17 and is expected to announce the results of the summit in a joint press conference without any joint statement. Office of the President joint press photographers

Thursday, President Yoon Suk-yeol spoke on the government’s new work-hour policy, which allowed up to 69 hours of labor a week, and instructed his officials to revise the policy suggesting that maximum working hours including overtime should be less than sixty hours a week. The president’s instructions are expected to act as a guideline in revising the policy draft. However, this exposed the government’s failure to listen to opinions and coordinate views between the Office of the President and the ministry overseeing the policy prior to the official announcement of the policy. The president will not be able to escape criticism for the confusion in the policy. He neglected the controversy for three months after the government draft was finalized and belatedly sought improvements.

Ahn Sang-hoon, senior secretary to the president for social policy, held a press briefing at the Office of the President in Yongsan, Thursday and said, “President Yoon believes it would be unreasonable to work more than sixty hours a week including overtime and regrets that the policy did not include an appropriate cap on working hours. He instructed improvements be made.”

As for a partial amendment of the Labor Standards Act, which the Ministry of Employment and Labor announced on March 6, Ahn explained that the amendment was to guarantee the right to health, the right to rest, and the right to determine working hours according to an agreement between labor and management. “But voices raised concern that the government draft could encourage long working hours,” Ahn said, explaining the reason for the president’s latest instruction.

Current law stipulates a 40-hour work week with up to twelve hours of overtime, limiting labor to a maximum of 52 hours a week. The latest government proposal enables businesses to extend the unit for managing overtime from a week to a month, quarter, half year, and year, based on an agreement between labor and management. In this case, as long as businesses guarantee a mandatory break time of eleven hours between workdays, employees can work up to 69 hours a week, which was what drew such fierce criticism.

The Office of the President has been trying to resolve the controversy, briefing the press for three days in a row after the president instructed improvements on March 14. The presidential office appears to have set a specific direction for improvements in those three days, from reviewing changes (Mar. 14) to setting the direction after listening to public opinion on the maximum number of work hours a week (Mar. 15), and deciding that working more than sixty hours a week was irrational (Mar. 16). Thus the final government proposal is likely to allow businesses to manage overtime within an extended time unit of up to a year with a cap on the maximum weekly work hour of around sixty hours.

A senior official from the Office of the President met with reporters Thursday and said that this was a process to create good policies and good legislation. However, it is hard to deny that they are rushing to make “improvements” after promoting a new work-hour policy, which has a significant impact on businesses and the workers’ right to health, without sufficiently collecting opinions and coordinating the policy. Last August, the education ministry tried to unilaterally promote a policy allowing children to start school at age five, but later succumbed to public opposition and scrapped the policy.

President Yoon’s guideline of a sixty-hour cap on weekly work hours also drew criticism for its tardiness. The government draft was based on a recommendation, released by the Future Labor Market Research Society upon request from the labor ministry, last December. The recommendation immediately sparked a heated debate for allowing up to 69 hours of labor a week. The opposition parties and labor cried that the new policy was a change for the worse. Nevertheless, the Office of the President ignored the controversy for three months and insisted on the original draft. Only after public opinion deteriorated to a significant degree, did the presidential office change its position, claiming that the president believed that working more than sixty hours a week was impossible. In addition, the presidential office reaffirmed that the government would maintain the framework of the original draft, so it is uncertain as to whether it will be able to resolve the criticism of long hours of labor.

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