South Korea walks back plans for 69-hour workweek after youth protest

A recent plan to boost economic output in South Korea by lifting the weekly working hour limit to 69 sparked protests around the country from Millennials and Gen-Z.
John Loeffler
A series of empty cubicles in an office
A series of empty cubicles in an office

Mbrickn / Wikimedia 

It seems every day everyone is working longer hours, putting strain on our work-life balance, but a recent plan to raise the limit on working hours to 69 prompted protests from younger South Koreans who said the plan would destroy their work-life balance.

According to a Guardian report, the plan was introduced after business leaders complained that the existing limit of 52 hours a week was making it too difficult to meet output demands. Many countries, like the United States, have no limit on the hours an adult can work in one week, but there are rules around overtime pay for many employees who work over 40 hours in one week.

Still, despite the limit on working hours already in place, South Korea has a reputation for a very tough workplace culture where long hours are expected. The average South Korean worked 1,915 hours in 2021, which is just shy of 200 hours more than the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development average. It's also 566 hours more than German workers worked in 2021.

South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol asked government agencies to reconsider the proposal after Gen Z and Millennial workers, as well as union leaders, protested the proposal. Kim Eun-hye, Yoon's press secretary, said that the measure would be looked at and that the government would "communicate better with the public, especially with generation z and millennials."

"The core of [Yoon’s] labour market policy is to protect the rights and interests of underprivileged workers, such as the MZ generation, workers not in a union, and those working in small and medium-sized businesses," Kim also said.

Yoon is a conservative politician who is generally seen as business-friendly, and said that the proposal would give workers more flexibility. Union leaders meanwhile argued that it would just force workers to work even longer.

“[The 69-hour workweek proposal] will make it legal to work from 9AM to midnight for five days in a row," the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions"There is no regard for workers’ health or rest,”

What is the right length for a workweek?

The 69-workhour proposal would actually be to overturn a 2018 law passed by South Korea's Democratic Party which limited the workweek to 40 standard hours with 12 hours of overtime. That party still controls the South Korean national assembly, so it promised to block the new proposal, arguing that the new proposal threatened to increase unemployment by allowing employers to fire workers to reduce payroll and then require the remaining workers to work longer hours to make up the difference.

Meanwhile, a recent trial period in the UK tested the impact of a four-day workweek on the bottom line of businesses across a broad swath of UK industries and found that the shorter work workweek had little to no impact on worker productivity, but greatly improved workers' quality of life.