South Korea Still Faces Challenges Cutting Down on Long Work Hours

South Korea Still Faces Challenges Cutting Down on Long Work Hours
Image source: rawkkim via Unsplash (2019-03-10)


Vedran Muftic

East Asia Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence


South Korea has one of the longest working hours of the OECD countries, ranking fourth behind Mexico, Costa Rica, and Chile. South Korea’s average annual working hours were measured at 1915 while the OECD average were at 1716 [1]. South Korea also ranks the third lowest in daily leisure time after Lithuania and Portugal. The highest ranked, Norway measured its daily leisure time at 368 minutes (6.1 hours), while South Korea’s daily leisure time measured at 258 minutes (4.3 hours) [2].

The issue of long working hours is not limited to diminishing leisure time, but also health. Death caused by overwork is something that has raised concerns among South Koreans. Heart attacks, workplace accidents and suicides have been linked to working exhaustingly long hours [4]. In response to this, in 2018 the government capped the number of legal working hours to 52 per week. Despite this, workers are urged to work beyond the legal limit by their employers. In March this year, the government, from the pressure of business groups intended to raise the cap to 69 hours. Due to public outcry and opposition from labor unions and young workers, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s senior secretary would reconsider the plan.    

According to the Sustainable Development Report [4], South Korea still faces significant challenges in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 8 (SDG8), Decent Work and Economic Growth. SDG8, which tracks indicators such as economic growth and employment-to-population ratio, has had positive growth. However, guarantees of fundamental labor rights, as well as a safe and secure working environment for all workers has however seen a decrease. The decision from the government to oppose raising the cap on working hours is a right step in maintaining the work towards a more secure working environment as it aligns with SDG8 however, the current cap at 52 still exceeds The ILO recommendation of a maximum of 48 working hours per week [5].       


References and further reading:

[1] Heather Chen, Yoonjung Seo, Andrew Raine. This country wanted a 69-hour workweek. Millennials and Generation Z had other ideas. CNN. 

[2]  Ihwan U. (2023, July 17). Korea's work-life balance lags behind other OECD nations. Korea Times.

[3] Rashid, R. (2023, June 18). Death from overwork: young Koreans rebel against culture of long hours. The Guardian. 

[4] Sustainable Development Report 2023. Sustainable Development Solutions Network – A Global Initiative for The United Nations. 

[5] International Labour Standards on Working time. (n.d.).