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South Korea: Labor Standards Law Amended to Limit Workweek

(May 18, 2018) On March 20, 2018, the President of South Korea promulgated an amendment to the country’s 1997 Labor Standards Act. The amendment had been passed by the National Assembly on February 27, 2018. (Labor Standards Act, Act No. 5309, Mar. 13, 1997, amended by Act No. 15513, Mar. 20, 2018 (in Korean).) The amendment mainly aims to reduce the maximum workweek. (Bill to Amend Labor Standards Act Passed in National Assembly, MINISTRY OF EMPLOYMENT AND LABOR (MOEL) (Mar. 1, 2018) (in Korean).)

South Korea is known for its long work hours—in 2016, the average number of work hours per worker annually was 2,069, which is the second-highest among the countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (only Mexico is higher, with 2,255 hours). (Laurel Wamsley, South Korea Shortens ‘Inhumanely Long’ Workweek, NPR (Mar. 1, 2018); Average Annual Hours Actually Worked per Worker, OECD.STAT (last visited May 15, 2018).) The average number of work hours per worker for OECD countries is 1,763, with the United States averaging 1,783 hours. (Id.) Reducing the number of hours worked in the country was a campaign pledge of President Moon Jae-in. (Jena McGregor, South Korea Is Dropping Its Maximum Workweek to 52 Hours. There Is No Federal Limit in the United States, WASHINGTON POST (Mar. 5, 2018).)

The amendment clarifies that the maximum number of hours an employee can work per week is 52. The Labor Standards Act states that work hours should not exceed 40 hours a week (Labor Standards Act art. 50, para. 1), but the work week can be extended by 12 hours upon an agreement between the employer and employee (id. art. 53, para. 1). Because there is no definition of “week” under the current Act, it is commonly believed, and even reported in the media, that eight hours can be added as extra hours on each Saturday and Sunday (seee.g., Yoon Ja-young, Weekly Working Hours to Be Cut to 52 from 68 from July, KOREA TIMES (Feb. 27, 2018); Wamsley, supra; McGregor, supra.), despite the Act’s provision that one day per week must be a holiday. (Labor Standards Act art. 55.) The amendment defines a week as seven days. (Labor Standards Act, as amended by Act No. 15513, art. 2, para. 1, item 7.) Therefore, there is no way that the maximum workweek can be interpreted as being more than 52 hours.

This new workweek limit will be enforced from July 1, 2018, in workplaces with 300 or more employees. Smaller workplaces with 50–300 employees are required to conform to the work-hours limit from January 1, 2020. Workplaces with 5–50 employees will be given one more year—until July 1, 2021—to conform to the law. (Act No. 15513, add., art. 1, para. 2.) Workplaces with fewer than 30 employees will be allowed from July 1, 2021, to December 31, 2022, to have up to eight hours of special overtime if such an agreement is made between the employer and employees. (Labor Standards Act, as amended by Act No. 15513, art. 53, para. 3.)

The amendment will bring other changes to employees’ work environments as well. First, it will mandate public holidays to be paid holidays so that employees in the private sector enjoy paid public holidays. (Id. art. 55, para. 2.) Second, the amendment reduces the number of industries exempted from the maximum workweek limit from 26 to five. (Bill to Amend Labor Standards Act Passed in National Assembly, supra.) Those five industries, mostly in the areas of transport and healthcare (id.), must provide employees at least 11 hours of resting time between each daily work shift (Labor Standards Act, as amended by Act No. 15513, art. 59). Third, the workweek for minor employees aged 15–18 will be decreased from 40 hours to 35 hours. (Id. art. 69.) Fourth, the amendment clarifies the compensation rates for holiday work. Employers are required to pay employees an additional 50% of wages for less than eight hours of holiday work. For eight or more hours of holiday work, they must pay an additional 100% of wages. (Id. art. 56, para. 2.)

The Minister of MOEL, Kim Young-Joo, stated that “this amendment is expected to cause old long-hour labor practices to be abandoned and to improve quality of life and labor productivity. The government will make every effort to enforce the amendment and … increase the employment of young people through job sharing.” (Bill to Amend Labor Standards Act Passed in National Assembly, supra (translation by author).)

Prepared by Jieun Chang, Law Library Intern, under the supervision of Sayuri Umeda, Foreign Law Specialist.