Reorganization of the 52-Hour Work System: Controversy Over Pros and Cons
Reorganization of the 52-Hour Work System: Controversy Over Pros and Cons
  • Kim Gyeong-min (ST Reporter)
  • 승인 2023.03.17 00:14
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The 52-hour workweek system has emerged as a hotly debated topic in Korea. The 52-hour workweek is a system that allows people to work 40 hours a week and up to 12 hours a day if  both workers and employers agree. However, with the change in government leadership, there was a suggestion to change the method of  calculating working hours. As a result, various opinions have been presented on this issue so far. ST looked at several aspects of  the 52-hour workweek system, including opinions in favor and those in opposition, and that of  public opinion. Let’s find out about the controversy surrounding the issue step-by-step through articles by Soongsilians and the perspective of  those who don’t know much about the debate on the 52-hour workweek system ..................Ed


     There is talk of a new labor policy to adjust the 52-hour workweek, which has been in effect for four years. The key is to make overtime work more flexible, which is currently limited to a weekly basis. Some point out that working hours may increase further, along with analysis that it is necessary to consider various market conditions and the specificity of the labor process. ST will look at the details of the flexibility measures and the debate arising over them.

What is a 52-Hour Workweek?

     The 52-hour workweek refers to a working system in which legal working hours per week are reduced from 68 hours to 52 hours. The 52-hour workweek, which had taken effect in July 2018, limited the workers’ extended working hours per week to a maximum of 12 hours. Initially implemented in public institutions, public corporations, and private workplaces with more than 300 employees, the 52-hour workweek has also been applied to workplaces with more than five employees and less than 50 employees since July 2021. Moreover, workplaces with less than 30 employees will be allowed to work additional eight hours under the labor-management agreement, but as the grace period ends in 2023, employers will be punished with up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 20 million won if they violate the new policy. 

     Meanwhile, the government has announced a reorganization of the 52-hour work system. The government has put forth new labor reform, which includes “extending working hours up to 69 hours a week,” and said it will push for legislation in the first half of this year. Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jeong-sik said in a meeting with the Future Labor Market Research Association, “We will respect the recommendations of the Research Association as much as possible and quickly push ahead with legislation in the first half of 2023 and engage in public discourse to resolve the reformative task of the split.” The key to the reform plan is to reorganize overtime management from “weekly” to monthly, quarterly, semi-annual, and annual units to break the “12-hour-per-week overtime limit.” In this reorganization will let the total limit of overtime work reach 52 hours a month, 140 hours a quarter, 250 hours a half-year, and 440 hours a year. Then, it was proposed to take “11 consecutive hours of rest” for working days as a protection device for workers’ health rights.

     To summarize the government’s reform of the work system, currently, the maximum working hours per week is 52 hours, which is 40 hours by default and 12 hours of extension. The reform proposal proposes a maximum of 11 hours and 30 minutes per day, up to 69 hours per week, and 11 consecutive hours of rest every 24 hours. In the same way, opinions from all walks of life, including labor, are at odds over the reorganization of the 52-hour work system. Political confrontation is also serious. The government and the ruling party’s position on the “essential task for the future” and the opposition party’s position to “retreat the lives of the people to 30 years ago” are parallel.

An Eruption of Protest from the Labor World

     The labor community protested because more and more workers are overworked. Lee Sang-yoon, head of the Policy 2 headquarters of the Federation of Korean Trade Unions, said, “They are treating the human body like it’s a machine. It is a prioritization of the convenience of corporations over the health and well-being of workers. Even the report of the Ministry of Employment states that working more than 60 hours a week for 12 weeks or more than 64 hours for 4 weeks is highly correlated to cerebrovascular disease. It is also possible that unfair treatment towards non-regular workers, who lack protection, will increase.” Han Sang-jin, a spokesman for the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, said, “Say, you do intensive labor for three months. But then you can’t renew your contract. What would happen then? If you use people when you need them and throw them out when demand is over, employment becomes more unstable, not stable. There is no problem with overtime work only when labor and management agree, but how many places have the workers’ voices heard when the union organization rate is around 14%?” On the other hand, Hwang Yong-yeon, head of the labor policy division of the Korea Employers Federation, said, “Extended work is based on the consent of workers. It’s just fear mongering that the employer will force us to work.” But John Kim, a labor rights lawyer, expressed doubt over such sentiment, stating, “in non-unionized workplaces, which are the absolute majority, the system of worker representation itself is nominal.” The government is pushing for legislation quickly, but difficulties will be inevitable considering the topography of the current political landscape in addition to opposition from the labor community.

Positive Comments on the Shift in the Working Hours Policy

     Some companies have already agreed to change their working hours policy. SBS labor and management agreed to implement a 68-hour workweek. Besides, labor and management have introduced flexible work systems in some departments and raised the unit price of overtime allowances. The SBS headquarters of the National Press Workers’ Union announced this and said, “We accepted the opinion of the company and its members that some of the flexible work system is inevitably needed to adapt to the 68-hour system that was urgently applied.”

     In addition, there are small and medium-sized venture companies that complain the 52-hour workweek most. At a meeting with representatives of game and software small and medium-sized venture companies at the Gyeonggi Creative Economy Innovation Center’s start-up zone on the 26th, Lee Young, Minister of SMEs and Startups, said, “The 52-hour workweek needs to be revised again.” Compared to other industries, the game and SW fields face more difficulties than companies in other fields because the nature of their work inevitably requires flexible working hours. Therefore, they are showing a positive stance on this shift in working hours policy.

     At the meeting, Choi Yoon-hwa, CEO of Stoic Entertainment, pointed out, “52 hours a week are not applied to the research sector, but the game industry is applied.” In particular, he raised his voice that companies should come up with measures to survive a little more actively than the grace period. In response, Minister Lee pointed out, “52 hours a week is a system in good faith to sanction companies with poor conditions of labor exploitation, but it is a problem and makes no sense to apply it to all companies and people alike.”

The Opinion that We Should Pay Attention to Whether Working Hours Can be Used Effectively

     Kim Tae-ki, chairman of the Central Labor Relations Commission, responded to the reform plan for working hours up to 69 hours a week. Shortening working hours, protecting workers’ health rights, and improving the quality of work are the goals of the labor market system reform that should remain unchanged. No one likes working long hours. However, no one wants to reduce working hours with less pay. Is there any way to reduce working hours and increase income? The answer is productivity. Productivity depends on how working hours are used. The freedom to choose working hours should be expanded. The reorganization of the 52-hour workweek is not to be seen as “up to 69 hours.” It is a question of how to use working hours effectively. The working hours system in Korea is wearing clothes that do not fit the industrial reality. The flexibility of working hours is also advantageous for women, the elderly, and minorities. For women, they should be able to adjust their working hours according to the childcare schedule.

The Minister of Employment and Labor’s Response

     Minister of Employment and Labor Lee Jeong-sik met with domestic Information Technology (IT) companies on the month10th, and reiterated the legitimacy of labor market reform, saying, “The current law was created in the era of factory law.” Minister Lee held a meeting with workers, and personnel and recruiters at major IT companies. Members of the Future Labor Market Research Council, an expert discussion organization launched last month to reform the labor market, also attended the meeting. Minister Lee said, “We are pushing for reforms to establish a sustainable and fair labor market while proactively responding to the labor environment.” He added, “Particularly, companies that attended today are responding quickly to the rapidly changing labor environment by introducing various types of flexible work methods and operating a wage compensation system tailored to the characteristics of individual companies.” Regarding working hours, the government said earlier that it would maintain a reduction in working hours within the basic framework of the 52-hour workweek, but take supplementary measures such as expanding autonomous options based on labor-management agreements and taking health protection measures at the same time. Participants generally sympathized with the government’s policy direction and purpose, while presenting various opinions, including concerns and considerations due to the system reform. Some said, “It will be important to see how specific health protection measures are and how they can protect workers.”

Public Reaction at the Time of the Implementation of the 52-Hour Work System in 2018

     According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor’s press release, more than half (55.8%) of Koreans perceived that “workers work a lot” (the opinion to the contrary scored 6.6%) and “Koreans who wanted to go home on time and enjoy leisure” (76.1%) outnumbered those who wanted to work more hours for more pay (23.5%) by three to one. Besides, more than three-quarters of Koreans (77.8%) believed the 52-hour workweek as a good thing (15.7% believed it to be a bad thing). The Ministry of Employment and Labor commissioned an external specialized agency announced the results of its survey titled, “Up to 52 hours a week public awareness survey.” Ahn Kyung-deok, the Minister of Employment and Labor emphasized, “The results of this survey show that people have a positive perception of the 52-hour workweek,” and added, “Thanks to the financial support of the government and the cooperation between on-site labor and management, as well as efforts from the National Assembly to create supporting legislation, the 52-hour workweek is gradually settling down.” He also said, “However, since there may be some companies still suffering, consulting support will continue in the future. We will continue to push for financial support.” The 52-hour workweek was introduced by the National Assembly after long social discussions to “restore the right to health” and “balance work and life” by improving the country’s work hours, the longest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Since then, it has been implemented in stages according to the size of the company since July 18, year, and has been expanded to workplaces with more than five employees since July. A more detailed look at the public response is as follows.

ST, Park Seo-jin
ST, Park Seo-jin


A Long Way to Go

There may be advantages to the 52-hour workweek system, but such a system could prove fatal if we do not have solutions to problems that may arise. As the influence of this law is great, establishing measures are a matter of utmost urgency. However, rather than completely reversing the contents of the bill, it must be revised and supplemented to uphold the original intentions of the law, without unfairly being a disadvantage to those who are the most affected by it. One of the biggest problems with the 52-hour workweek system is its disregard for the characteristics of various industries. Different industries have different working characteristics and ignoring them can have undesirable consequences. In particular, the impact on new industries such as IT and software, which must produce intensive results in a short period of time, has been enormous. Large companies can afford to endure the impact of the law, but small and medium-sized companies are struggling. They cannot come up with solutions in such a short time. Also, most of them are lesser partners of large corporations. Problems that impact them will have a negative impact on the entire industry. A growing number of people are finding it harder to make a living than the past before the law took effect. Among them, small businesses and employees working there were the hardest hit. This phenomenon is a completely different result from the original intention of improving the quality of life and balancing work and rest. What’s the point of work-life balance if it is obtained by sacrificing the livelihoods of the most struggling part of our society? It is time to correct these issues. First, it is necessary to differentiate the subject of the law. Reasonable standards should be re-established according to the type, size, and region of the company. Next, an all-inclusive system should be established for various exceptions, flexible work systems, and flexible working hours. By doing so, it will be possible to minimize the damage to those suffering the most. Most importantly, special measures should be taken to prevent more people who want to work but cannot work.

Direction of the 52-Hour Workweek

     It is time to think about the direction of the 52-hour work system. The 52-hour work system surely causes some problems, but there are certainly benefits and positive aspects brought by it. The research group added that the expansion of the flexible work system should expand workers’ free choice of working days, commuting hours, et cetera, but in the case of extended, night, and holiday work, guidelines should be prepared to accurately record actual working hours in wage registers and wage statements. It also recommended the introduction of a working-hour savings system, which allows workers to earn time off in return for overtime, night shifts, and holiday shifts, as well as establishing the workers’ ability to use vacation days so that they may utilize them to rest, enjoy family life, and seek self-growth. As a result, even if workers’ working hours policy changes, working hours management is expected to be more thorough, and solutions and services for access certification and absenteeism management are expected to continue to spread and advance in 2023. Opinions from each stakeholder, including the labor community, are at odds over the reorganization of the 52-hour work system. Political confrontation is also serious. The government and the ruling People’s Power Party’s position argues that the reforms are “essential tasks for the future,” and the opposition Democratic Party of Korea’s position that “the lives of the people will be retreated to 30 years ago” are running in parallel. Korean society is facing yet another difficult task at hand. Working hours have changed according to societal agreement throughout the flow of history. There is a tough tightrope between economic growth and workers’ rights. Our society has come to a compromise, even if incomplete. Societal choices are impacted by individual choices. The issue of flexible working hours is a matter for all to think about. We are at a crossroads of what direction we are to go as a society.


Kim Gyeong-min (ST Reporter)
Park Seo-jin (ST Reporter)

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