[The Christian Science Monitor] ‘Nut rage’ in S Korea spotlights culture of punishing long hours

South Korea’s “nut rage” scandal has unleashed long-simmering public resentment over the makeup of family-run conglomerates here.

Now the saga – where the daughter of Korean Air‘s chairman turned around a taxiing aircraft after being served bagged nuts in first class – is casting a light on the country’s relentless work culture. New revelations show the chief flight attendant who oversaw the nuts presentation was ordered to work shifts lasting up to 18 hours.

Testifying at the trial of the daughter, Cho Hyun-ah, who at the time was a Korean Air vice president, flight attendant Park Chang-jin said he was assigned a “work schedule from hell” after the incident that received international press attention. Ms. Cho potentially faces three years in prison if convicted of assault and aviation-safety related charges.

Mr. Park’s testimony resonates strongly in a society with some of the longest work hours in the world, undergirding a work culture that has seen South Korea rise from poverty in the 1960s to the top ranks of world economies.

According to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Koreans on average work 47 days more days a year, about a month and a half, than their American peers.

Yet as Korea punches above its weight as a economic force after decades of a work ethic designed to help it surpass its neighbors, and former peer North Korea, a new round of grumbling about over-work and work place policies is starting to emerge.

No time for hobbies

Son Hye-jin, a sales representative at a clothing export firm in Seoul, for example, often feels she has no life outside the office. She begins work at 8 am, and doesn’t finish until 7 or 8 at night. Weekends are no guarantee of relief, as work often extends to Saturdays.

“If I had some free time, I think I would like to learn this or that, or take up a hobby, but it’s impossible because I don’t know how much overtime I will have to do,” she says. “You’ve no choice but to work, right?”

Small and medium-sized firms are notorious for pushing employees to work schedules at odds with labor laws that are supposed to strictly regulate work hours and pay.

As an employee at a mid-sized IT firm, 24-year-old Lee Eun-woo says she often worked for up to 17 hours to please her boss. “I was depressed. I really wanted to quit my job, but it was impossible because it is extremely hard to find a job in Korea these days.”

Like Son and many others, Lee wasn’t compensated for the mountains of work that extended outside her official workday of 9 to 6 and that she was expected to handle.

“That’s the reality at most small and medium companies. In our country, the places that actually give you money for overtime are large companies. At other small companies, it’s really hard to get.”

Social gatherings after hours

The rigors of work don’t end in the office. Employees often must attend afterwork dinners that turn into drinking sessions, called “hoesik.” While ostensibly set up to relieve work pressure and encourage bonding, such gatherings are often stressful, especially for women because of hierarchical norms.

“In the ‘hoesik’ culture, as a woman, the boss forces you to drink and tells you to show off your ‘aegyo,” says Lee, referring to a Korean expression for a type of affected cuteness prized in women.

At one such drink-fueled outing, Lee says she witnessed her former boss hit a subordinate for no apparent reason. As a lower-ranking employee, he had no choice but to accept his boss’s abuse, she says.

Korea’s demanding work culture largely stems from its rapid industrialization after the Korean War, according to Park Tae-gyun, a history professor at Korea University in Seoul. Park Chung-hee, a dictator who ruled for 17 years from the early 1960s, and is widely seen as the father of the country’s modernization, used South Koreans’ insecurities toward regional rivals like Japan, the former colonial power, to implement an intensive and regimented work culture.

“Actually, South Korea at that time was poorer than North Korea, so people believed that we should catch up with North Korea, and that was achieved in the early 1970s,” Prof. Park says, adding that a similar mentality pushed people to strive to catch up with Japan.

A culture of striving continues to guide society, he says.

“Every day, most parents say to their sons or daughters that, first of all, if they are students, ‘study hard’ — if they are more than 20, ‘please work hard.’ So that’s kind of Koreans’ habit still. They believe working hard is a way to live better.”

Signs of change

Albeit slowly, conditions are changing, as well as expectations. While still near the top of the global rankings, South Koreans today on average work about 350 fewer hours a year than they did in 2000.

Legislation to abolish the six-day work week at many companies came into effect in 2004. Successive governments have recognized the need to reduce work hours, for both economic and social reasons, although some businesses, as well as workers who want overtime pay, have opposed such moves.

Park says the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which led to unprecedented mass layoffs, effectively upended many Koreans’ expectations of a job for life. Some began to prize their leisure time and develop interests outside the workplace.

But for some Koreans, change can’t come fast enough. Fed up with negative experiences of the workplace and job market in her country, Lee moved to San Francisco in July to study English and plans to pursue a career in software development abroad.

“Korean society is rampant with a culture of poor workplaces,” she says.


[The Korea Herald] Should Koreans work less?

By John Power

It’s no secret that Koreans work the longest hours of any developed nation. In 2010, each worker put in an average of 2,111 hours. Workers in Korea also take some of the fewest holidays. Just 53 percent take all of their holiday time, compared to 89 percent of the French, according to a 2010 poll by IPSO. On the back of this work ethic, Korea has risen from poverty to become the world’s 13th-largest economy. But after decades of strong economic growth and rising prosperity, employees and policymakers are paying increasing attention to quality of life.

In a recent survey of Seoul workers by online information provider PayOpen and Korea Research, 41.1 percent of respondents choose leisure time as a factor in deciding whether to accept a job, closely following the proportion that chose salary, 45.8 percent. According to Statistics Korea, 65.8 percent of Koreans used leisure facilities in the year between July 2010 and July 2011, while 58.6 percent saw cultural, artistic or sports events on at least one occasion. At the same time, just 32.1 percent of Koreans were satisfied with their leisure, with finances cited as the biggest reason.

And despite remaining top of the international tables, Koreans’ work hours are at something of a low-water mark, having fallen steadily since the introduction of a five-day, 40-hour work week in 2004.

Offices remain lit up into the night in Yeoido, Seoul’s finacial district. The nation’s demanding work culture means that many employees work way beyond regular office hours. (The Korea Herald)

“The force, you may call it a cultural force, is increasing to enjoy leisure because of the family, because of the children, because of the school kids, so probably the resistance (to working shorter hours) at the moment in the long run will be reduced,” Kim Yong-hak , a sociology professor at Yonsei University, told the Korea Herald.

Changing attitudes

Different work and leisure expectations among the younger generation in particular have driven this trend, he said.

“At 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock they want to go home even though there is some leftover work. Previously, maybe 10 years ago, it was unimaginable in Korean companies, but the younger generations refuse to … overwork,” Kim said.

“They all claim this 15-day law-protected vacation period. But previously they did not go on vacation but now they are enjoying this vacation more and more. So, statistics show that the leisure industry is growing rapidly.”

Other factors, such as the abolishment of school on Saturdays, has further contributed to a greater focus on time away from work, he added.

While they put in far more hours than their international peers, Korean workers ranked just 24th for productivity among OCED-country employees in 2010. In 2011, labor productivity, or GDP per hours worked at current prices, was just 46.5 percent of that of the U.S.

“Especially labor productivity in wholesale and retail, restaurants, hotels is so weak due to it being the traditional service sector in Korea as well as it being a labor-intensive sector,” said Rhee Keun-hee, a senior researcher at Korea Productivity Center.

“In addition, manufacturing is relatively innovative in terms of product innovation and process innovation, but not in services. It is characteristic of (the) service (industry) in general.”

Pyo Hak-kil, an economics professor at Seoul National University, attributes this poor productivity to overregulation and a lack of foreign competition in the service industry.

“(The) Korean economy is still in the catch-up stage and therefore, its productivity is lower than U.S., Japan, the OECD average and EU 15 average. … But it is getting better and it will as we move from low- technology products to high technology products following incremental comparative advantage and going up the competition ladder.”

President Lee Myung-bak and some labor experts believe that shorter working hours could have a positive effect on productivity and unemployment ― as well as people’s quality of life. Labor Minister Lee Chae-pil claimed in January that 5,200 jobs were created through a government crackdown on workplaces that violated working hours restrictions.


If employees work fewer hours, according to the ministry’s logic, companies are compelled to hire more workers to make up the loss. Similar rationale was put forward by the French government when it introduced a 35-hour working week in 2000, though its effects remain contentious.

“The mega trend of Korean society is to reduce the work hours because of the high unemployment and of course there is a conflict between the labor aristocracy … labor aristocracy is those who are unionized with very strong power and with high pay and this labor aristocracy is having a conflict with less secure workers in Korea,” said Kim.

But despite the seemingly obvious attraction of fewer hours in the office, not all employees are keen to cut down. The Labor Ministry last month stepped back from a plan to include weekend work in the calculation of overtime, currently capped by law at 12 hours a week. Resistance came from both employers and employees, the former worried about increased labor costs, the latter reluctant to give up lucrative overtime pay. Minister Lee conceded that more time was needed for “study and discussion” of the issue, but insisted there was consensus among economy-related ministers on reducing work hours. Any such consensus is not present among economists.

Pyo, for one, believes the emphasis on a shorter work week is misplaced.

“Cutting Korea’s work hours would not be a solution because it reflects (the) social and corporate culture of work habit and standards of office work. Many factory workers are working overtime to secure extra compensation for their family budget needs.

“Their employers may find it better than trying to recruit new part-time or full-time workers because they can cut over-time work but cannot reduce extra workforce when business conditions deteriorate. In other words, the long working hours might have been (a) rational work practice by both employers and employees.”

Pyo is also skeptical of fewer work hours translating into more jobs.

“It would not be an effective way of boosting employment because most employers are afraid of increasing part-time and full-time employees since once they hire them, it is very difficult for them to lay-off some of them (because of) labor law and strong union activity. And factory automation and information and communications technology use in offices make employers save their labor costs rather than boosting the employment level.”

Inevitable trend

Nevertheless, the recent trend has been decisively one-way: away from the work-is-all mentality of the past. Kim sees the shift as inevitable, whether it should be welcomed or not.

“I cannot judge morally … but empirically speaking, that is an inevitable trend, it occurs everywhere in the world, in every country. As the economy grows rapidly and people have some wealth, then they begin to enjoy leisure. But Korean people … are still maybe the most hardworking (in the world).”