Jobs and the Future of Work

South Korea has limited a working week to 52 hours, in order to stop overwork

Kim Keon-hoon, a worker with Byucksan Engineering & Construction, looks out through the window from his empty two-bathroom, four-bedroom apartment before an interview with Reuters, in the middle class suburb in Goyang, north of Seoul April 1, 2013. Kim says he was forced to buy an unsold 800 million won ($716,400) apartment, built by his employer in 2008, as the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Five years after the global financial crisis, South Korean construction workers are feeling the pinch more than ever as they shoulder a mountain of debt from a real estate bust that has cast a long shadow on the country's growth prospects. Picture taken April 1, 2013.   REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won (SOUTH KOREA - T

The new policy may lead to more productivity, more jobs and, potentially, more babies. Image: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

Tara Francis Chan
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Republic of Korea

South Korea has implemented a new 52 hour work week in an attempt to stop chronic overwork.

The country is trying to promote a greater work-life balance by lowering the maximum hours people can work from 68 to 40 hours, plus another 12 hour of overtime. Smaller firms won't need to make changes until 2020, but larger firms that breach the new rules could be fined up to $17,815. Executives could face two years in prison.

"It will be an important opportunity to move away from a society of overwork and move toward a society of spending time with families," President Moon Jae-in said on Monday. "The most important thing is that it will be a fundamental solution to protecting the lives and safety of the people by reducing the number of deaths from overwork, industrial accidents and sleep-deprived driving."

The changes were supposed to go into effect for large companies, public institutions, and government offices on July 1, but the government last week backpedaled, slightly agreeing that firms will have six months to implement the new schedule.

Being forced to soften the rollout of the policy indicates how much the plan was driven by the government, rather than workers themselves that rely on overtime to earn enough money. The policy is key for President Moon, who is hoping it will lead to more productivity, more jobs and, potentially, more babies.


South Korea has one of the longest workweeks in the developed world, with people spending 300 more hours at work than in the US on average, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperations and Development (OECD). It also has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

“For years, we have overlooked the real culprit of the problem — our country’s vast gender disparity and inhumanely long working hours," Chung Hyun-back, South Korea's family minister, told AFP in January.

"Under such unfair circumstances, young women usually choose their career, not marriage and childbirth."

The five-day workweek was only introduced in South Korea in 2004.

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