By Shafiq Kyazze.

“It is impossible to lead a happy life when long hours and overexertion become routine; overworking must not persist in our society”. This was the statement made by Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president earlier this year who was introducing the idea of reducing the work week in a bid to boost the nation’s falling birth rate and depressing standards of living of its citizens.

His comments come as no surprise as South Korea’s fertility rate of 1.2 children per woman (The U.K rate is about 1.8) coupled with Spain and Italy, is one of the lowest birth rates among OECD countries.

This low birth rate is mainly blamed on the work culture, where people work very long hours, in fact in March this year, the gender equality and family minister, Chung Hyun-back, called the country’s working hours “inhumanely long” and put the blame for low pregnancies on the workaholic life.

But it’s not only government officials complaining about the country’s long working hours. A 2014 hit song, “Misaeng” that translates to ‘Incomplete life’ highlighted aspects of office life: Bullying from co-workers, sexual harassment and a cruel pecking order, were among the many troubling issues.

A young business woman in Seoul

However, changing the workaholic culture isn’t going to be an easy task for the government. The culture has been instilled into many South Koreans during the country’s 60-year rise from a poverty stricken nation to a leading industrial power. Such a change is inevitably going to take a tremendous amount of time as this requires a dedication of citizen’s priorities and values. Poverty has plagued this country for a considerable length of time and it is possible that the fear of backtracking from their new found success is affecting people’s relationship with work and as a by product, their perspective on family life.

The government has proposed a reduction in the official corporate work week in order to give employees more free time, improve their health and wellbeing as well as boost their birth rates. The work week for office workers was cut from the current 68 hours to 52 hours even though some believe that such a change will just remain on paper and won’t be promoted in most work places.

“A law on work hours is just a piece of paper, the reality in Korea is that we will work and work and work” giggled Hyun- Soo, an accounts assistant at a major telecommunications company while taking his smoke break. He preferred not to mention his name or employer due to fear of blowing his career.

Cheonggyecheon Stream In Seoul City

In order to comply with the new reductions, some companies have gone as far as deciding to shut down computer networks to force employees to go home early whilst others have installed TV surveillance to ensure clock-in and out at reasonable hours as well as introducing card swipe systems to limit smoking and coffee breaks.

A further measure of bettering standards of living has been the minimum wage increment; the South Korean government has also increased the minimum wage to $7 which represents a 16% jump. This minimum wage increment has been the biggest change in the last two decades as well as starting new programs to cut down costs for small businesses.

So how well will these measures work, and how far is South Korea prepared to go to ensure it doesn’t fall prey to an aging generation whilst on the trail of enconomic success?

 

Shafiq is a Chemical engineering student at The University of Manchester and has a strong interest in philosophy and history having been exposed to such issues at a very young age. He is also very keen on topics concerning the global economy, politics, and social issues, but when he’s not engrossed in such conversations, you can find him supporting the Barcelona football team or writing contributor articles for The Common Sense Network.