April 20, 2018

South Korea’s capital shuts off the power to fight overtime culture

South Korea’s capital shuts off the power to fight overtime culture

The Seoul Metropolitan Government is in the middle of a three-phase process to encourage employees to improve their work–life balance by powering down their computers on Friday evenings.

The scheme started on 30 March, when the power at Seoul City Hall was switched off by 20:00. In April the shutdown will move to 19:30, and in May, 19:00.

“Working hours across the world are falling, but considerable variation remains,” writes Professor Peter Dolton of the University of Sussex for IZA World of Labor. “In some countries people work 70% more hours per year, on average, than in other countries.”

South Korea, like Japan, is a country where it is common to work long hours, starting early in the morning and finishing late at night. Government employees in particular are known for their punishing schedules, working roughly 1,000 more hours per year than the average in other developed nations. 

Recent legislation aims to address the problem. The Korean National Assembly passed a bill on February 28, 2018, to reduce the maximum working hours in the country from 68 hours per week to 52. The bill also makes all public holidays mandatory paid days off, reduces the number of special industries that are exempt from restrictions on maximum working hours, and provides clarification on overtime premiums for weekend working hours. The law becomes effective on July 1, 2018, and will apply to large companies before being rolled out in stages to smaller companies.

By introducing the power shutdown on Friday evenings, the Seoul government hopes to set an example for companies to do more to promote a sense of work–life balance.

“There is constant pressure to reduce working hours on grounds of work–life balance considerations,” reflects Dolton in his IZA World of Labor article. “Debate is ongoing as to whether and how this can be achieved through technological change, without causing a regressive redistribution of income away from less skilled workers,” he says. Achieving the optimal balance between these factors is a major challenge for policymakers.

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