In land of longest hours, workers get a break

South Korea hopes a five-day week will boost worker efficiency.

Goodbyes can say a lot about a culture.

Americans, for instance, often part with a casual "Take it easy."

In South Korea, the expression is: "Bye. Work hard!" And if someone mentions how many things they have to do, the common reply is "Ah, it's good to be busy!"

But the country with the world's longest average workweek - 55.1 hours over six days - is contemplating a pause that refreshes.

The government is moving to institute a five-day workweek in order to improve quality of life, job productivity, and domestic tourism.

The official logic is that with more time off for personal development, Koreans will become more creative workers, making their corporations more adaptable at a time of steadily increasing global competition.

South Korea is the only member of the 29-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that works Saturdays.

While France and Germany have recently legislated shorter working hours in order to boost employment, South Korea expects that gains in productivity (thanks to the much needed rest and relaxation) will cancel out any need for more workers.

Compared with their South Korean counterparts, American workers log a mere 42.4 hours per week on average. That's according to a survey of 32 countries by Roper Starch Worldwide, a New York-based research company, based on interviews conducted between November 2000 and February 2001. Yet Americans lead the globe in terms of productivity.

Lee Ju Seop, along with other public servants, will be among the first to benefit from the change, expected next spring.

Currently, Mr. Lee puts in 13-hour days at his job at South Korea's Ministry of Finance, in addition to his one-hour commute by subway. When he arrives home, he says he barely has enough energy to flip on the TV before going to bed. "Some of my colleagues, who may want to go abroad, study some books after work," he says.

On Saturdays, he gets out early - at 4 or 5 p.m.

Even before the planned changes take hold, there's evidence that South Koreans aren't working as hard as in the past. According to government figures, South Koreans worked 206 hours per month on average last year, down from 226 hours per month in the mid-1980s, a time of double-digit economic growth that culminated in Seoul's hosting the 1988 Summer Olympics - a sort of crowning glory after decades of breakneck development.

"In my father's generation, they were very poor. Just after the [1950-'53] Korean War, they didn't even have food. But they didn't want to give that poor system to their children," says Lee, explaining why Koreans have pushed themselves.

A three-party commission of government, labor, and management representatives is currently debating the new legislation. While some business leaders would like to draw out the transition over 10 years because they fear it will hurt productivity, labor unions want a five-day workweek immediately.

Even if a compromise can't be reached, the government has promised to push through some sort of new law, which about 70 percent of the public supports, according to various surveys.

The drive to reduce the workweek is receiving opposition from some unlikely quarters. On Aug. 13, a Protestant minister here argued against less work in an opinion article in Chosun Ilbo, a major newspaper. Citing the Bible, the Rev. Lee Jong Yun of Seoul Church wrote: "The five-day workweek is against the Ten Commandments. 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work.' " The Christian Council of Korea, which represents several congregations, is apparently afraid that a shorter workweek will result in fewer churchgoers, reported the Yonhap news agency.

Lee, the Finance Ministry official, says he plans to spend his new free time reading more and playing squash.

But many observers expect it may take a while before South Korea's obsessive culture of work recedes from society. Even if the government regulates shorter work hours, they say, people may voluntarily abstain from earned vacations.

"Koreans still have a tendency to work hard. If they're paid enough, they're not going to reduce their working hours," says Choi Kyung Soo, a research fellow at Korea Development Institute, a state-run think-tank.

Not everyone excited about the change expects to work less. "Sure, it's going to be good," says a taxi driver, who didn't want his name used. "With more time off, people will use more taxis. I'm not going to work fewer hours!" he says with a laugh.

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