Ever since the government announced the introduction of the five-day week within this year, there has been a heated debate between workers and the management over related issues such as reduction of monthly and yearly leaves, the existence of monthly leaves for women, the premium for overtime work, preservation of income with reduced working days, and so on.
The government's position is that "if workers and employers fails to come to an agreement by the end of August, the bill will be drawn up based on discussions to date and submitted to the National Assembly in November." Employers call for "a reduction in monthly leaves for women and monthly and yearly leaves in general," whereas workers demand that "the five-day week be implemented while preserving all other conditions."
The overall response to the five-day week is quite positive.
As soon as the government made its announcement, most of the media sent out special features predicting changes such as strengthened family ties and a boom in the leisure market, and reporting higher stock prices for travel agencies. But the main points of contention brought about by the five-day week has been seen as an argument between employers and workers, with not much effort being put in to reach a public consensus.
The hottest debate is over holidays and vacations.
On August 6, the Korea Chamber of Commerce announced that "if the five-day week is introduced while maintaining all current holidays and vacations, 165 to 175 days of the year will be off days, making almost one out of two days a holiday." The organization's claim that the five-day week would mean 'too much play and too little work' invited overwhelming backlash from workers.
On the same issue, the Korea Federation of Trade Unions said, "Even if you maintain all monthly and yearly leaves and introduce the five-day week, Korean workers get an annual average of 136.5 days' leave, which is still lower than the US's 142, Germany's 140 and France's 145, all statistics provided by the Korea Chamber of Commerce."
The government's suggestion for supplementing the five-day week is to stop compensation for monthly and yearly leaves that are not taken, and instead allowing workers to carry over "not-taken leaves" to the next year, provided that such 'carry overs' do not exceed 30 days and this practice lasts for no longer than three years. Regarding this method, 35-year-old Ahn, an office worker, comments, "There aren't that many people who take all the holidays they are entitled to. If we are no longer compensated for leaves not taken, then those of us who chose not to take leaves will be doing work for free!"
What worries the workers most is how to reduce working hours, which average about 2,497 hours a year. It is not a simple matter of not working on Saturdays; if overall working hours is not reduced to 2,000 hours a year, there is no point in introducing the five-day week.
Furthermore, if the government accepts the management's demands to reduce holidays and to lower the overtime premium from 50% to 20%, then actual working hours will not even be reduced.
The tripartite committee of labor, management and government has a special subcommittee for the reduction of working hours. Kim So Young, a member of this subcommittee, says, "We will accept the workers' request to keep current incomes intact, while preserving vacations for casual workers with careers less than a year old and setting up mechanisms to prevent employers from abusing the informal employment system." Kim went on to say, "When we carried out on-site surveys last year, many sales workers asked for the reduction of sales hours."
However, Kim stressed that "these issues need to be negotiated with the relevant ministries or government agents as decisions are not made by the subcommittee." Thus, whether improvement will be made on a government level remains to be seen.
What then are the issues to be resolved concerning the five-day week, from a woman's point of view?
The general position of women groups is that "although they agree to the five-day week system itself, they believe that the five-day week alone cannot bring about an actual reduction in working hours for women."
Professor Cho Sun Kyung, who teaches Women's Studies at E-Hwa Women's University, points out that for the five-day week to have the expected effect, "a mechanism to increase the low income of women needs to be put in place at the same time." The five-day week, something that most workers have been constantly demanding of the government, fails to be a boon for women because "more than 70% of women are informally employed, leaving them out of the target group that may benefit from the five-day week."
The Seoul Women Workers' Union issued a statement on August 9, sharply criticizing the government for "using the five-day week as bait to abolish paid weekly leaves, paid women's monthly leaves and paid monthly leaves, resulting in even longer working hours." Furthermore, the Union pointed out the inconsistency in lowering restrictions on overtime, night shifts and holiday shifts for women and then introducing the five-day week on the pretext of reducing working hours.
Jeong Yang Hee, President of the Union, claims, "Asking women in casual employment to give up monthly leaves, the only advantage they have, in exchange for the 5-day week means taking away their minimum legal rights as workers." She emphasizes that "what is more urgent than introducing the five-day week for the 5% of workers who are formally employed is to strengthen the Labor Standard Act to reduce the actual working hours of over-worked employees in casual employment or petty businesses."
The Women's Committee of the Democratic Labor Party also issued a statement on August 13, saying, "Restrictions on women's overtime and night shifts have been lifted, women's incomes are 60% of men's, and 70% of women are casually employed. In this reality, if monthly leaves for women are taken away, women workers will have to work for even longer hours and smaller pay than before." According to the Committee, "without any restrictions on overtime or extended working hours, the five-day week will have little effect in reducing working hours."