South Korea Seeks to Cut Work Hours, Encourage More Babies

Long work hours are a 'stumbling block' to country's development, labor policy group says.

Workaholic South Korea will encourage its labor force to work less overtime in order to create more jobs and boost productivity and the dwindling birth rate, a top labor policy group said Wednesday.

As of 2008 South Koreans worked 2,256 hours a year, the longest among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development where the average is 1,764 hours.

South Korea's government-backed the Economic and Social Development Commission plans to cut average annual work hours to less than 1,900 by 2020, said spokesman Kim Yang-Soo.

The commission will map out policies and launch a publicity campaign aimed at encouraging employees to leave their workplace earlier while improving productivity, the spokesman said.

"Long work hours result in low productivity, undermine job creation and contribute to a low birth rate, thus acting like a stumbling block to the country's development," the commission said in a statement.

The commission said the current system under which management can "buy" unused holidays should be replaced by one under which workers must use holiday time.

The spokesman said the commission would encourage job sharing and flexible work hours to create more jobs and encourage family time.

"Female workers, for example, avoid getting married and having babies because of work burdens. Use of more part-timers to stand in for them would allow them more time for managing homes and caring for babies," the spokesman said.

South Korea's birth rate -- the average number of babies born during a woman's lifetime -- remained near the world's lowest at 1.19 in 2008, and there are fears the population will begin shrinking within a decade.

The commission will also try to change the wage system to factor in productivity to discourage longer hours, the spokesman added.

Lee Jeong-Ho, a policymaker at the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, called on the government to come up with actions such as tax incentives for companies to encourage them to reduce work hours.

Lee said the basic wage of employees at large manufacturing companies accounts for only 38% of take-home pay, inducing them to work overtime.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010

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