Workers Complain of Lost Income Due to Shorter Working Week

  • By Park Soon-chan

    March 28, 2018 09:30

    A widespread culture of unofficially overworking staff has paradoxically led to complaints that shorter legal working hours deprive workers of much-needed off-the-books pay.

    In the research and development divisions of major conglomerates, which find it hard to hire qualified extra staff, workers often log in 52 hours on paper but actually work more than 60 or 70 hours a week. The previous permissible limit was 69 hours, the longest in the OECD after Turkey.

    Some employees resort to clocking off earlier to make it look like they went home on time. One R&D staffer at a major conglomerate said, "We still work the same long hours, but log in only 52 hours a week. So we end up forfeiting not only overtime pay, but also extra transportation allowance as well. This new measure makes no sense to me."

    Similar problems are cropping up at other businesses that began implementing shortened work weeks. Human resources departments and bosses are busy enforcing the rule, while the workload remains unchanged, forcing staff to either take the work home with them or stay at the office without receiving overtime pay.

    One smartphone developer said, "We have to go home at 5:30 p.m. no matter what, but if we are assigned work after 4 p.m., it's hard to accommodate the request on the same day. If we leave work on time, the boss gets on our case the following day about the lack of progress. What are we supposed to do?"

    Employees at LG take a bus to commute from work to home in Seoul on March 16.

    Many workers are complaining that the new measure designed to make their lives less stressful in line with developed countries is in fact only costing them money. And instead of blaming the companies that shamelessly exploit them, they are blaming the government.

    One employee in a mid-sized pharmaceutical company said, "They may pay us only for working 52 hours a week, but make us work overtime for free." At one major conglomerate that began implementing the shortened work week, staff can be spotted working into the evening with their laptops at nearby coffee shops.

    Businesses admit that they are in serious trouble. For example, sending workers on business trips abroad at the weekend could end up forcing others to work beyond the authorized 52 hours a week. Sales departments are also in a quandary, whose staff need to hang around with the clients after work

    One executive at an electronics company said, "Even office gatherings are categorized as work, so we're going to have to stop having meals together after work."

    The government hopes the shortened work week would prompt businesses to hire more replacement workers, but companies are instead trying to bypass the problem by streamlining work processes and switching to automated systems. That this is an inevitable process in a modern society is small comfort to those who are bringing home less pay but are as overworked as ever.

    Others fear the new measure will lead to a widening gap between big and small businesses. The 52-hour work week is expected to impact the wages of staff at small and mid-sized companies more than those working for big conglomerates, who get bigger basic salaries, and especially staff on temporary or "zero-hour" contracts, who often feel they need to work every permissible hour of overtime.

    Big businesses, which have powerful labor unions, are more likely eventually to come up with solutions. But small and mid-sized companies do not have as much financial leeway, since they are already dealing with a minimum wage hike.

    The Korea Federation of Small and Medium Business estimates SMEs will have to shoulder W8.6 trillion a year in costs due to the shortened work week (US$1=W1,073).

    The government is trying to ease the tax burden on SMEs in order to absorb the added costs. Sung Tae-yoon at Yonsei University said, "SMEs will be impacted directly by the shortened work week, while facing a tougher time hiring additional workers, so workers may end up seeing their salaries decrease although their workload remains the same. Tax cuts are unsustainable and are not an effective policy."

    Koreans work the second longest hours in the OECD, and death by overwork is a common phenomenon.

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