Recently, a committee of labor, management and government representative is having a discussion in the National Assembly about introducing the five-day workweek system. The media reported that the system may be put into practice by July, 2002. However, the system's introduction is becoming dimmer as labor and management remain divided over key issues, including the number of paid leaves and when to implement them.
Advanced countries already have a five-day workweek. Moreover, the French government adopted a four-day workweek.
Where and when did the five-day workweek begin? What are the problems of introducing the system to Korea? To answer these questions, The Dongguk Post interviewed Park Kang-woo, the director of Policy Department of Korean Confederation of Trade Union (KCTU)..........................................................................................Ed.
Post: What is the origin of a five-day workweek?
Park: A five-day workweek (in other words, a forty-hour workweek) is the legal number of working days that are officially guaranteed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1935. This is related with a worldwide movement demanding a reduction of working hours based in the 19th century. After the Industrial Revolution, people worked hard for fifteen or more hours a day, leaving them little time for anything else except eating and sleeping. Labor started to struggle with owners for reducing working hours. Thanks to labor's efforts, they accomplished in goal of a reduction of working hours to twelve hours a day.
Then in the United States, people staged demonstrations and parades for an "eight-hour working day" in the early of 1900s. During the demonstration, many people were injured and some were even killed. Labor Day (the first Monday of September in the United States and Canada) and May Day (the first of May in many countries) were originated in support of those the demonstrations.
Post: What countries have a five-day workweek?
Park: France, in 1936, was the first country to introduce the five-day workweek sanctioned by the ILO followed by the United States in 1938. Most advanced countries implemented a five-day workweek in the 1970s and 1980s. The French government, which was in the vanguard of reducing working hours, shortened working hours from forty to thirty five hours a week in 1998. Movements to reduce working time are currently spreading all over Europe. Most European employers follow their nation's legal working time, while Korean employers ask workers to work more hours than is legally allowed.
Post: Now, our country is debating the introduction a five-day workweek in the National Assembly. How is it going?
Park: Koreans worked forty-eight hours or more a week till 1989, we were not able to demonstrate for shorter working following the international working hour standards because Korea was under the Park Jung-hee and Cheon Do-whan dictatorships. After the dictatorship, the Korean government accepted a forty-four hour week as a legal workweek. In fact, however, Koreans work in a poor labor environment working for fifty hours a week, which is more than underdeveloped countries. For example, Mexicans work 45.5 hours, Kenyans 44 hours, Czechs 40.8 hours and the Chinese 42.2 hours according to the ILO.
When faced with an economic crisis in 1997, Korea had to ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for financial support. The KCTU asked the government to introduce the five-day workweek to help solve the unemployment problem. The KCTU held a general strike and then President Kim Dae-jung promised that he would introduce the five-day workweek in the National Assembly within a year. Actually, the system is not yet on the agenda of the assembly even though the labor, management and government committee undertook the issue in October, 2000. However, negotiations between labor, management and government are at an impasse as they stick to their positions.
Post: Many employers object to the five-day workweek system. What is the main reason?
Park: Employers say that it is too early to implement a five-day workweek. They insist that Korea has not enough material resources and is a labor-intensive. According to their position, it is inevitable for Korea to make full use of its manpower in order to strengthen its competitiveness in international markets. They think introducing a five-day workweek is not utilizing manpower, which will lower productivity.
So, they propose reducing days off to one day off for each month you work without an absence. If you work a month without an absence, you can have a holiday.
However, Korean workers get 22 - 23 days off at most, while European workers get have four to six weeks off. A reduction in days off is an infringement of workers' rights.
Post: What do you think about introducing a five-day workweek?
Park: There were about 70 thousand industrial accident victims due to long working hours for last year alone. According to an ILO report, the number of deaths is 58 times more than the U.S., 29 times more than Britain and Japan, 18 times more than Sweden and two times more than Singapore and Thailand.
Most industrial accidents basically result from workers' fatigue due to overwork, which interferes with concentrating on their tasks. The more industrial accidents occur, the lower the productivity.
In addition, there's no way to guarantee workers' break-time. Workers need break-time so that they can relax and conserve energy for concentrating on their tasks, and, consequently, increasing efficiency on the job. Actually, workers in advanced countries increase their productivity through the five-day workweek system.
I think that we have to increase the high-value end of our industry, producing small high-quality goods, which will lead to a better working environment. A more important thing is, however, the incumbent government has to introduce a break-time system immediately, because Korean workers work too much.
Kim Hye-jeong firstname.lastname@example.org
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