Having lived in South Korea in the late 90’s, a few of the recurring images from that time remain locked in my memory. One such image was from when I used the subway, my preferred mode for getting around Seoul.
Most of the time, the subway cars were packed, mostly by men in suits and some women, and the vast majority were sleeping. I don’t mean a few here and there, I mean 90% of the people. I came to understand that, as a nation on the rise to first-world status, ‘salarymen’, as they were called, (as well as the women who had entered the workforce) had to endure long hours and a heavy workload.
In some ways, they were following a model paved earlier by Japan, whose rise to industrialization was founded on the cultural value of having a place in the society, being a ‘cog in the wheel’ and playing a part in the progress of the nation. Large corporations have long had the power there to demand maximum sweat and productivity from employees, sometimes leading to suicides or simply ‘death by overwork,’ a complete physical and mental breakdown that has been common enough to be represented by the single word karoshi.
New Laws in Japan, Korea
Today, however, the pendulum may finally be starting its swing in the other direction, and hopefully is a harbinger for change in other areas of the world as well. The high-profile suicide of a 24-year-old female employee of Japanese advertising firm Dentsu may have helped to inspire the law, as the government and the young woman’s family condemned Japan’s culture of long working hours.
As a consequence, Japan’s parliament recently approved a bill that limits overtime work to less than 100 hours a month per worker, and less than 720 hours per year, while setting penalties for companies that violate the new labor rules, according to the Wall Street Journal. Before the law, there was no limit to the number of hours companies could ask their employees to work.
In South Korea, a law that lowered the country’s maximum workweek to 52 hours, down from 68, also took effect last week.
Will This Be A Trend?
Official recognition in Asia of the need for work/life balance is a big step. On June 4th Japanese Prime Minister Abe said,
“Work-style reforms are the best means to improve labor productivity. We will correct long working hours and improve people’s balance between work and life.”
Perhaps it is premature to see this as a trend. But it is possible that our awakening to the fact that a majority of workers on the planet are seen and treated like slaves–whether literally or figuratively–is the source of such a move. If so, there may be a cavalcade of such announcements coming down the pipeline soon, with big implications about how we live and work in the future.