South Korean minister sparks backlash after defending longer work week as ‘helpful’ for working mothers

File. South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world — 0.78 in 2022  (YONHAP/AFP via Getty Images)
File. South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world — 0.78 in 2022 (YONHAP/AFP via Getty Images)

A South Korean minister on Thursday said that lifting the weekly work hour cap to 69 hours from 52 will actually help working mothers.

Labour minister Lee Jung-sik said that this will give working mothers more choices and help them raise children, sparking outrage among critics of the move who believe that this will only end up hurting women.

In January, it was reported that South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol wanted to allow people to work up to 69 hours a week – up from 52 hours – and bank overtime hours in exchange for time off, a plan he hoped would promote family growth alongside productivity.

Mr Lee on Thursday was asked whether the labour reform proposal will help South Korea’s dwindling fertility rates. He said: “We’ll introduce bold measures to help cut working hours during pregnancy or while raising children.”

However, the law needs to be passed by South Korea’s national assembly, where the president’s political opponents hold the majority. And the opposition politicians have so far criticised the plan, with one representative Park Yong-jin of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea labelling the plan as a “shortcut to population extinction”.

The labour ministry brushed off this criticism saying that lifting of the weekly work hour cap to 69 hours from 52 will “only add more choice”.

Opposing the move and the comments by the labour minister, the Korean Women’s Associations United said in a recent statement that “while men will work long hours and be exempt from care responsibilities and rights, women will have to do all the care work”.

South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world – 0.78 in 2022 and 0.81 in 2021, according to the latest data.

According to Associated Press, the population of South Korea shrank for the first time in 2021, stoking worry that a declining population could severely damage the economy – the world’s 10th largest – because of labour shortages and greater welfare spending as the number of older people increases and the number of taxpayers shrinks.

On Wednesday, President Yoon ordered “bold measures” to tackle the country’s record-low birth rate. “Please come up with bold and sure measures for the low birth rate so that they can be felt by the people,” he said, according to presidential spokesperson Lee Do-woon.

The labour reform proposal was first unveiled in December. But was officially announced on Monday. It says that this is an attempt to bring more labour flexibility in the country and to improve work-life balance in a country where many women are forced to choose between their careers and raising children.

“It will make it legal to work from 9am to midnight for five days in a row. There is no regard for workers’ health and rest,” the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions criticised.

“The beauty of introducing a 52-hour workweek was that you gave a signal to employers, unions and workers saying, ‘Listen, you really have to do something about the long working hours culture in your country,’” Willem Adema, a senior economist at the social policy division of the OECD told Reuters last month.

“If the current legislation is all about giving flexibility then that’s fine. But it doesn’t seem to be interpreted as such.”

Lee Yoon-sun, a 29-year-old office worker was quoted as saying: “Working long hours when you have a heavy workload and then resting when you are less busy seems like a pattern that will lead to an irregular life, affecting having children and taking care of them.”

(With additional reporting from agencies)