Mandatory 52-hour workweek is necessary in Korea as practice of long working hours still prevails

Yu Seon-hee 2024. 3. 5. 18:14
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Where to find jobs that honor the ‘52-hour workweek’ The Constitutional Court has ruled that the ‘52-hour workweek,’ which limits the maximum number of working hours per week, is constitutional. A job seeker looks at job information at the Seoul West Employment Welfare Plus Center in Mapo-gu, Seoul, on Thursday. By Seong Dong-hoon

The Constitutional Court's ruling that the 52-hour workweek is constitutional is based on the fact that long working hours remain a serious problem in Korea. In a decision released on March 4, the Constitutional Court said the mandatory 52-hour workweek is necessary given the social structure that makes it difficult to break the practice of long working hours and the environment that makes it difficult for employers and workers to negotiate equally. The ruling runs counter to the Yoon Suk-yeol administration's policy of promoting the flexibility of statutory working hours based on agreements between the parties.

According to the Constitutional Court's decision that Article 53 (1) of the Labor Standards Act, which stipulates the 52-hour workweek, is constitutional, the Constitutional Court premised that long working hours cause complex social problems, including adverse effects on workers' health and safety as well as productivity. It said that workers are not given enough time to rest and recover, which is a risk to health, and the higher the working hours, the greater the risk of industrial accidents. The Constitutional Court said, "To address long working hours, Korea amended the Labor Standards Act twice in 1989 and 2003 to shorten the legal working hours to 40 hours a week," noting that "despite this, the annual actual working hours of all employed people in 2019 were 1,967 hours, the highest among OECD member countries."

The Constitutional Court noted that while the principle is to respect the voluntary agreement between employers and workers, Article 32(3) of the Constitution states that "the standards of working conditions shall be established by law to ensure human dignity." Since individual workers are often economically and socially disadvantaged compared to employers, it is necessary for the state to set "minimum standards" for "human dignity.

The Constitutional Court noted that some countries do not enforce the upper limit of overtime work by law. Korea's long-term labor problem stems from the structure in which employers fill their target production with non-regular overtime work to reduce costs, and workers prefer overtime work to increase income. The Constitutional Court said, "In such a situation, it is not clear whether the upper limit will be limited at an appropriate level and the actual working hours will be shortened if an exception to the upper limit of overtime work can be set according to the agreement between the parties." Last year, Yoon's administration pushed for an increase in the weekly work limit to 60 to 69 hours, emphasizing that it would be based on an "agreement between the parties.” However, the Constitutional Court found it difficult to reduce the actual number of hours worked when the cap was not enforced and left to the parties' agreement.

In response to the argument that low-wage workers want to work long hours in order to receive additional benefits, the Constitutional Court said, "The problem of low wages cannot be solved simply by working outside the legal working hours." It added, "It is an issue that requires long-term structural reforms, such as the protection of hourly workers by raising the minimum wage or reforming the wage system by adjusting the ratio between basic salary and benefits."

Kim Jong-jin, director of the Working Citizens' Research Institute, said, "Workers who do not have bargaining power over working conditions and hours may be at greater risk to their health and lives if the 52-hour workweek is not regulated by law. We believe that the Constitutional Court's decision may influence the government's trend toward a longtime labor policy."

※This article has undergone review by a professional translator after being translated by an AI translation tool.

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