Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Five Day Work-week (again)

As the issue of the government five-day work week proposal prepares to make a dash to the National Assembly the labour unions are threatening, or have perhaps started, strikes. There are three key players involved in this situation: the government, businesses, and labour. Government's objective should be to balance economic growth and quality of life concerns by first ensuring an environment that allows businesses to become competitive and to provide citizens with the facilities and means to enjoy a higher standard of living. Businesss objective is profit and labourers' objectives are to ensure the rights of workers encompassing financial, safety, and livelihood issues. All these need to be balanced appropriately with the aim to reduce Korea's current working hours down to 40. Apparently, this is way harder than it looks.

The Korea Times has quoted Park Yong-sung, Chairman of the Korea Chamber of Commerce

"It is time for politicians to make a decision on the issue," he noted, arguing that no other country had ever adopted a five-day workweek through an agreement between business and labor."

So after boasting of their little tripartite commission and very democratic idea of including government, labour and business together to solve issue jointly, it hasn't worked. After years of bickering we hear that the excuse for reaching a stalemate is that no other country was ever able to reach an agreement either. In short, the failure of others justifies my own failure.

I also don't consider that to be true becuase I understand that in many cases, government laid a structure and then left the details to be hashed out through management-labour negotiations. This allowed for collective bargaining, industry specific solutions, and timing matters to vary although everything had to fit within the legal framework prescribed in law. Wouldn't managment-labour agreements through this mechanism be defined as 'an agreement between business and labour"???

I personally think the problem, for Korea, lies in this comment from an old Korea Times article (2001).

What about the productivity of Korean labor? A recent report by the McKinsey Korea shows that Korean workers are 36 percent as productive as U.S. workers, and about 50 percent compared to their Japanese counterparts. Of course, labor productivity depends on a host of factors, including the amount of machines to work with, education, training and management skills, but this is clearly very low.

Korea has high education and world class machinery and technologly. I don't know exactly about training but most employees in my office have gone off to training seminars and courses. It would seem that they don't lack too much in that department. However, management skills are a laughable oxymoron.

I now suggest three simple steps that many companies could take to improve productivity which would hopefully negate the need to reduce wages:

1. Eradicate the communal lunch hour: rotate lunch hours of employees so that the office doens't effectively shut down for a total hour everyday. By keeping the place going during lunch.

2. Reduce alcohol tolerance: discourage late night drinking and eradicate naps and morning sleeps to get over hangovers

3. Work to get the job done: teach time management skills, set strict but reasonable deadlines and have management set an example of working hard in the day and leaving on time.

When I first started working in Korea, I commented on how pleasant condition were in that nobody yelled or seemed stressed or ran around as if their job was way more important than everyone elses. But in part, I think now that the reason behind this pleasantness is that nobody has any sense of getting the job done in good time or doing their best, nobody is trying to impress or get ahead. In short, people are working, but nobody works hard they just work late.

This McKinseyreport counters the lack of productivity argument a bit by noting that sometimes industry structure can account for a degree of percieved productivity. However, it would seem to me that inefficient industrial structure that impedes productivity gains is as big a problem as low productivity, maybe worse.

Currently reading:

"Hell" by Yasutaka Tsutsui