“A work week consists of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Friday, and Friday...”
This expression is sarcasm about the working environment in South Korea, that doesn't give workers holidays, but instead, assigns a lot of overtime. However, this isn’t just a joke. Overworked staff, are seeing their health affected by this policy and in some instances, the results are fatal. In Korea, work related deaths from exhaustion are all too common in the news. In January of this year, a public official was found dead one Monday morning at her government office in Sejong-Si. The cause of death was fatigue from being overworked. The 35 years old young woman often worked weekends to get her work done. Moreover, in 2016, six mailmen passed away while they were at work. The deaths were also a result of being overworked.
Deaths from work related exhaustion are a direct result of the irrationally long work hours demanded of employees from an over-assignment of tasks and it is time the government steps up to solve this very real problem.
In a recent presentation by The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it was revealed that the average annual number of working hours of an employee in South Korea is 2,113. This represents the second longest working year of all member states, and is 347 more hours a year than the average number reported by member states, which is 1,766 hours.
To make matters worse, progress in high-tech devices, such as smartphones and laptops, is breaking down the boundary between working-hours and off-hours, making it easier to demand more work be completed during your off-hours. One report said employees are completing on average about 11 hours more per week during their off-hours because of the smartphone. This means that even when employees are not at work, they are still expected to be ready to take on tasks that that might be assigned unexpectedly.
According to a report entitled, Diagnosis on the Organizational Health and Corporate Culture of Korean Companies, conducted by Mckinsey & Company with the Korea Chamber of Commerce & Industry, this regressive corporate culture, such as working nightly overtime is exacerbating the productivity of Korean companies. Employees rated nighttime overtime as the worst product of corporate culture. Employees of a five-day work week are working 2.3 times on average at night, and 43.1% of them are working three times or more. However, a sample survey on the companies that exercise a policy of nightly overtime showed productivity losses instead of gains. In other words, nightly overtime was not helpful for improving actual output.
The number of hours worked per week is directly related to deaths from work exhaustion. However, according to the Labor Standards Act, corporations do not have a duty to record the working hours of their employees, so if someone dies from work related exhaustion, there is no proof or accountability. The rate of deaths from being overworked is estimated to be as high as 23.8%, however with no records of working hours, proving work related exhaustion is not easy and family members are not entitled to any compensation for this wrongful death.
Our labor laws currently do not do enough to protect workers. Given the number of work related deaths due to exhaustion, new legislation tackling the problem should be established. We need to make concerted efforts to improve the working environment of our employees. Last March, a member of the National Assembly, Shin, Chang-hyun tabled a bill designed to prevent deaths from work related exhaustion. The core of the bill included clearly identifying deaths which are a result of being overworked, otherwise known as ‘Kwarosa’ (in Korean) and detailed an enhanced duty for administration to suggest and review preventive measures every 3 years.
Deaths from work related exhaustion is a phenomenon unique to societies that tolerate dumping a heavy workload on their employees in the pursuit of profit. However, it has been proven that excessive workloads do not translate into long term profitability. To put an end to tragedy of deaths due to work related exhaustion, new laws should include a duty to clearly record employees working hours, so that records can be used to track and prove accountability of companies in these unnecessary deaths. A healthy working environment, should lead to healthier and more productive employees.