07/22/2005, 00.00
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Short work week generating anxiety among Koreans unused to too much leisure time

Seoul (AsiaNews) – A government survey shows that most South Koreans are unhappy with a five-day work week, something they just got recently. The law imposing a shorter workweek on public sector workers, financial institutions and private companies with more than a thousand employees was passed by the South Korean parliament in 2004. And two weeks ago, parliament went further including companies with more than 300 employees.

The law was meant to improve the quality of life for South Koreans, but recently the Ministry of Culture and Tourism surveyed adults whose employers had opted for the shorter workweek and the results are startling: 57 per cent said that they were dissatisfied with having more leisure time.

An employee at a brokerage firm, a Mr Lim, said he rejoiced when he heard about the new system. But "after driving out to the country every weekend, there was nowhere else to go. Sometimes the coming weekend worries me," he said.

What to do is one issue; paying for it is another. In fact, the survey found that 83 per cent of those surveyed said their spending on leisure had gone up but their wages have not.

Some respondents have also complained of a lack of cultural and leisure infrastructures, not to mention the lack of adequate roads to some tourist spots which forces holiday makers to waste energy and money.

There might fewer working days but the amount of work has remained the same, especially in the smaller firms. This has led to more intense work and relatively greater stress.

"Since the five-day workweek, I have no strength left on weekends to think of anything else but making up for lost sleep, because I have to go to the office earlier than before and I am overloaded with work," said an employee at Daewoo Securities.

An editorial in the The Korea Times suggests that a short workweek is a challenge to Korea, the country with the hardest working labour force, the county whose people knows how to work but doesn't know how to rest.

Part of the problem is that South Korea industrialised in decades whilst it took the West centuries to do the same. This has left Koreans culturally and socially more backward.

This harsh opinion is appropriate perhaps because it comes from Korean critics, but would be seen as arrogant and ahistorical if uttered by Westerners.

During the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), Koreans laboured for 500 years under a ruling class whose power and interests were buttressed by a rigid Confucian culture. There followed 35 years of Japanese imperial rule that enslaved them.

The division of the country in 1948, the civil war and the military dictatorships that succeeded each other in the following decades hindered social progress.

The establishment of democracy on solid foundations in the 1990s in South Korea opened up the realm of possibilities with initiatives and laws that sought to improve people's quality of life. And the five-day workweek was one such law.

But having a good car means little if one does not know how to drive it.

"People have to develop know-how about sharing hobbies with their families without having to spend much money," said Kim Chung-woon, a professor at Myongji University. 

As the editorial page in The Korea Times suggested, g Government assistance in learning how to take it easy is indispensable. The law establishing the five-day workweek is just a beginning. Now government and citizens must closely work together to make Korea an forward looking nation not only in terms of work ethics but also in terms of its culture and quality of life.

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