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And You Think You Work A Lot? South Korean Work Hours Highest in OECD

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As an American, I get a lot of flack these days about how awful the current state of my country is, how there are no jobs, how there are jobs but people simply aren’t looking hard enough for them, how Wall Street controls the universe, and how gosh darn lazy those Occupy-[metro here] protestors are with their refusal to pay their own loans while simultaneously parading around with iPads. Don’t Americans know what it means to work anymore?

Well, before we bite into the American work ethic too hard, let’s highlight a few of the social issues plaguing South Korea (aside from Kim Jong-il’s occasional threats). As it turns out, if Americans really don’t know what it’s like to work in tough environments anymore, they might be able to gain a few pointers from South Korea:

  • Korean employees

    South Korea ranked third among 30 OECD member states in terms of the ratio of education spending to GDP but at bottom in terms of happiness and had the longest working hours.

  • South Korea came in fourth with a 31.8 percent ratio of self-employed business people to all employed people, about double the average of 16.1 percent. This suggests that Korea is in greater danger than any other country in a recession.
  • South Korea also ranked at the bottom in terms of life satisfaction. In a survey of career interest, pride, and annual work leave among 1,000 people aged 15 or older in each OECD member state in 2008, South Korea finished 24th with 23.1 out of 100 points, much lower than the average of 54.3 points.
  • In a negative index survey of pain, hypochondria, and sadness conducted the same year, South Korea averaged 61.5 points, far above the average of 35.6.

As of 2007, a South Korean worked on average 2,316 hours per year, the longest among all workers in OECD states and 548 hours more than the group average of 1,768. In terms of eight-hour work days, this means that South Koreans worked 69 days more than their counterparts. The Dutch work the shortest hours annually with 1,392, while the Japanese (1,785 hours) and Americans (1,794 hours) also work fewer hours. [source: Koreans work longer, suffer most in OECD]

I continually ask myself just how I made it out of my first job teaching English at an academy in South Korea alive. After having to manage a high-stress job of up to 12 teaching hours per day — often working 8 hours straight without a break — I wanted to laugh in my doctor’s face when, after I complained of frequent neck pain, he told me I had to exercise. I did not laugh because of his advice, but because he told me that “sitting at my desk was giving me neck pain.” Right, because I generally sat at my desk for a grand total of about 10 minutes during the entirety of the work day. Actually, I only SAT at all for that long, period.

However, when I tried to express my exhaustion and even a slight bit of “this is just so unfair!” to Korean acquaintances, I might as well have been invisible. After all, I was still working far less than them.

The attitude towards work in South Korea, I found, was one of duty. Koreans know that they work inhumane hours, but what can you do? You need to work, right? There isn’t much of a way to dodge the issue.

I remember being appalled while watching the recent hit film Antique and hearing the coffee shop owner’s proposal to his potential employee: “the hours are 12-2.” In America and European countries, the share of labor is divided differently than in Korea. Westerners hire several employees to cover a variety of shifts, whereas Koreans hire only one or two employees to cover, well, all the shifts. This likely benefits the employee financially, as he isn’t sharing his salary with a number of other workers (though the extent to which the employee is actually seeing a high salary is greatly dependent upon the position and also upon the levels of bureaucracy involved), but what of his general well-being?

Through American eyes, it makes more sense to hire an employee for no more than 8 hours a day so that he can come to work well-rested, energized, and ready to put his best foot forward (well, one hopes) rather than run him into the ground after a 16-hour work day and send him into a state of mental trauma by the end of the month. By my logic, this working strategy not only makes more sense, but it makes workers more efficiency. But you must remember that in a society with Confucian roots – yes, South Korea is still developing – efficiency isn’t necessarily key. Both Korean workplaces and schools favor quantity over quality: regardless of how much a student actually learns, what matters is that his warm body (conscious or not) is present in a school-related function from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m. each day. It’s no surprise, then, that I’d often received blank stares when I express my bafflement with this logic.

Why wouldn’t you stay for an extra 4 hours of overtime? It’s what your boss tells you to do. You wouldn’t dare disobey your boss, but you also wouldn’t scrutinize the reason you need to stay, either. It doesn’t matter whether you actually have work to do; you just need to be there.

If you figure that there are about 240 working days per year (Monday-Friday), according to the statistic presented above, the average Korean works over 9 hours per day. Unfortunately, I fear that a certain lump of hours is missing from this equation: the copious amounts of unpaid overtime Koreans submit to. For a long time Japan has always stolen the limelight when it came to being overworked, karoshi being a much more trumpeted word in social literature than the Korean equivalent, gwarosa. I admit that at first I was surprised to see that Koreans do in fact trump Japan when it comes to working hours, and I was also surprised to discover that Korea also has a higher suicide rate (no doubt related to overwork and school pressure).

I question just how proactive countries like Japan and Korea are when it comes to a societal issue such as this. Even though change in this sector would be ethical and beneficial for the society as a whole, someone is going to lose money in the end, and that always retards the process. While Koreans will protest about contaminated beef or about high university tuition, working hours just isn’t something they’re known to take to the streets for – despite its obvious negative consequences. You might say that a Korean refuses to relinquish his pride, knowing that for years his country has been the underdog and that hard work and dedication is finally pulling it up to the top. This might also be a test of strength, the survival of the fittest and their subsequent belittlement of the weaker employee who “just can’t handle it” (a habit that has likely developed during the compulsory military service men need to complete).  However, depression and suicide rates tell us otherwise. The fact is, Korean isn’t getting any satisfaction whatsoever from draining labor.

I can say that from my own experience as a foreign teacher in South Korea that contracts mean nothing and the articles in them are consistently overwritten or just completely ignored. In other words, the employee is typically at the mercy of his company. For example, I remember a (female) member of my church lamenting her 7-day work week.

“Why don’t you get another job?” I asked (after first telling her to negotiate with her boss, which, of course, was out of the question).

“But then I’ll have no job,” she replied.

Indeed, in South Korea working a miserable job is better than working no job at all. Whether a Korean has a problem with this is all case-specific, but it sure doesn’t seem like a cohesive pot of steam is boiling on the issue, nor has labor policy been enforced (indeed, perhaps it has been enacted, but it is certainly not enforced) to change this OECD plunge.

Women in the South Korean workplace

Obesity among Korean women is the lowest among the 30 member countries of the OECD with 3.3 percent, even lower than Japan’s 4.3 percent. Korean women work an average of 44.3 hours per week, the longest among OECD members, and well above the OECD average of 34.3 hours. Korean men also work the longest hours in the OECD with 48.3 hours per week, but considering the gender wage gap in Korea, where women only earn 62 percent of what men earn, the gap in working hours is minimal.

One key figure that shows the current status of women in South Korea is the rate of participation in economic activities. In Korea, the rate was 58.7 percent in 2008, lower than the OECD average of 63.2 percent. Among Korean men, the rate was 82.2 percent, slightly below the OECD average of 83.3 percent. Along with Greece, Italy and Japan, Korea has a gender gap in economic activity of over 20 percent. [source: Korean women’s status still low]

Ah yes, it’s never a pleasant time to be a woman in South Korea. But my beef with this article is as follows: sure, Korean women are underrepresented in the labor force, and they get paid less than men, but if you had one or more children and a husband whom your children never see, would you really want to be working that “double shift” anyway? What gets to me about Korea’s gender inequality isn’t the gender gap in the labor force — that, in my opinion, is something the wife can choose, and should she choose to not work, she will probably be handing herself less stress — but the fact that 82 percent of the jobs lost over the past year were held by women. This seems devastating and unfair.

The real problem with Korean gender balance and the objectification of women. I was shocked to see videos from Nude News posted on the Chosun Ilbo, a site that I thought was a reputable news source. Such trashy videos factored in with news, and especially on the same network as an article that just addressed the low status of Korean women, it seemed absurdly out of place.

Then, I had to remember, I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

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Filed under: Social Issues, South Korea

About the Author:

Tiffany Zappulla is VagabondJourney.com’s Korea correspondent and travel tech reviewer. She pinched pennies throughout college, sacrificing parties, treats, and occasionally even food so she could start traveling to foreign lands. So far she’s toured Scotland, Spain, and Japan (twice) on a budget, and spent three years living in South Korea actively engaged in the culture and lifestyle. Aside from her qualifications in ESL, Tiffany does other freelance writing and odd jobs. She is currently living the broke American life for awhile before deciding on her next adventure. Connect with her on Google+. has written 31 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.