During my visit to Korea a few weeks ago, a hot debate over an “alternative holiday” system caught my attention. When a holiday falls on a weekend in Korea, it is not generally observed by businesses on the prior or subsequent weekday. However, the government has recently sought to change this despite strong opposition from interest groups and the business sector.
The issue reminds me of a similar debate 10 years ago when Korea first sought to introduce the five-day, rather than six-day, work week. I was working Saturdays at the time and thought it was a great idea. Opponents argued that a five-day work week would impede Korea’s export competitiveness — the same argument that opponents of the alternative holiday system are making today. In 2004, out of all member nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Korea’s labor force worked the most hours — nearly 2,400 hours per year compared to an OECD average of 1,800 hours. Since the government started phasing in the five-day work week in 2002, Koreans generally work fewer hours. But in 2010, Korea still ranked near the top, with nearly 2,200 hours, for longest hours among OECD member nations. By comparison, American workers logged about 1,780 hours a year and U.K. workers marked about 1,650 hours a year.
Despite the fears of the business sector, Korea’s five-day work week has actually benefited its economy. Export competitiveness has improved along with increased productivity gains, an area in which Korea has also outpaced its OECD peers. In addition, an increase in time off has boosted domestic demand in Korea’s entertainment and leisure industries. Koreans traveling overseas and ticket sales for movies, performing arts and exhibitions have all nearly doubled. Whenever I visit Korea, I continue to be surprised to find new leisure activities being promoted. When I visit my favorite mountain trails, I get the sense that the number of hikers has grown.
In my opinion, a few more approved holidays won't dramatically reduce total hours worked as long as a strong corporate culture and work ethic are maintained. Better quality of life — whether it is high school kids spending less time in specialized tutoring schools known as cram schools or employees spending fewer weekends in the office — should do more to strengthen the underlying health of Koreans rather than weaken their business competitiveness. Given the country’s continuing gains in productivity, I believe there should be few, if any, noticeable implications to export and manufacturing industries.
Improved quality of life could lift Korea’s economy, especially in the area of domestic consumption, a key growth driver. As the country has shifted from a manufacturing-based economy into a more knowledge-based economy, quality of work should be more highly regarded. Quality of life, I believe, is essential to quality of work.
© Matthews Asia