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South Koreans begin 52-hour workweek

By Wooyoung Lee
South Koreans begin 52-hour workweek
A sign in front of the Shinsegae department store in Yeongdeungpo shows changed opening hours in accordance with the new 52-hour maximum workweek, which took effect on July 1, 2018. Photo by Yonhap

SEOUL, July 2 (UPI) -- South Korean workers started their week with a new labor law that cuts the country's notoriously long working hours coming into force on Monday.

The revised Labor Standards Act mandates businesses with more than 300 employees to limit the maximum working hours from the previous 68 hours to 52 starting in July. Under the new law, workers work for 40 hours during weekdays, up to extra 12 hours of overtime.

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The retail giant Shinsegae Group opened its department stores at 11 a.m., 30 minutes later than its usual opening hour to meet the new work hour rule, Yonhap reported.

Hyundai Department Store allowed its employees to finish work at 7 p.m., an hour earlier than the usual finishing time. It plans to ask staff members to rotate to accommodate extra work until the store's closing hour at 8 p.m.

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Major conglomerates such as Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motors, SK Innovation and LG Electronics have already introduced flexible work schedules, which allow employees to choose when to begin and finish work within the minimum weekly work hours.

"I feel things have changed a lot when I see the office empty after the finishing time. But at the same time I feel burdensome to finish my usual workload within shortened work hours," a staff member at LG Electronics was quoted as saying in the Yonhap report.

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Employees working after-hours and offices lit with bright fluorescent light at night have been a symbol of the country's long hard-working culture.

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South Korean employees worked 2,069 hours on average in 2016, 300 hours more than the average working of 1,764 among developed countries, according to data of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD data ranked the country with the second longest working hours after Mexico.

Such trend has changed as more people began to see the importance in work-life balance while the country suffers from one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

The decision to cut working hours, however, has met concerns by small-to-medium businesses and manufacturing companies, which fear a rise in labor costs from hiring more workers to reduce the overall working hours. Employees are also concerned with reduced wages from shorter working hours.

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"The decision to cut working hours was made for the Korean society to free from the fatigue from working too much and increase corporates' competitiveness and productivity. The government will offer support for SMEs struggling to adjust to the new working hour rule," said Hong Jong-haak, Minister of SMEs and Startups, during his visit to a local manufacturing company on Monday, Yonhap reported.

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