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Complete Guide to Work Hours and Korean Labor Law

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If you’re moving to Korea, you are going to need a job. And working in Korea can range from rewarding to incredibly frustrating. Most likely, it will be both. 

Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion, multiple sources, and misleading information out there. Lots of foreigners get caught up in hearing bad stories from long-term expats, false information from employers, and pressure from co-workers. 

THE HAN GANG MAGAZINE Guide to Work Hours & Labor Laws will attempt to provide a comprehensive breakdown of what you need to know about working and employment in Korea. 

Check out the Korean Labor Law Resource Guide for Foreigners with important introductory advice on your rights and important contact information.

Throughout this guide, we’ll be using the official Korean Labor Standards Act as a source.

Hours & Pay Rates in Korea

What are normal work hours in Korea?

Article 50

(1) Work hours shall not exceed 40 hours a week, excluding hours of recess.

(2) Work hours shall not exceed 8 hours a day, excluding hours of recess.

(3) Upon calculating the work hours under paragraphs (1) and (2), any waiting time, etc. spent by workers under the direction and supervision of their employers that is necessary for the relevant work shall be deemed work hours.

How long is break time in Korea?

(1) An employer shall allow workers a recess of not less than thirty minutes if working for four hours or a recess of not less than one hour if working for eight hours, during work hours.

(2) Recess hours may be freely used by workers.

waiting-boss
You better believe that break time is strictly enforced

Comment:

“Work hours” are 40 hours a week. Seems normal right?

Actually, this 40 hours is pure work time. It does NOT include break time. This means you are at work for 9 hours straight (8 hours of work, 1 hour of total break time). This breaks down to 30 min of break for every 4 hours of work.

Keep in mind that you must work 4 hours to earn 30 min of break. If you work 6 hours, that’s still only 30 min of break.

Typical work hours are 9am to 6pm. Some offices do 10am to 7pm.

I worked at one marketing agency where they clocked you in/out via fingerprint, including lunch break. Even 1 min late back from lunch counted as a “half day” absence, with 3 times resulting in a deduction. Yeah, I’m glad I quit that job even though it paid > 5 million won per month.

Flexible Work Hours System

Article 51

An employer may extend work hours beyond the standard number of work hours in a day or week without having to pay overtime, provided that the average number of weekly hours over a two-week period does not exceed 40 and that neither workweek exceeds 48 hours.

When hours are averaged over two or more weeks under a flexible work schedule, overtime is defined as hours worked that put employees over an average of 40 a week. Where there exists an agreement between the parties, work hours may be extended up to 12 hours per week. 

As of February 19, 2019, the flexible working hour period has been expanded from the current maximum of 3 months to 6 months.

For example, someone under the flexible working hour system will work 52 hours a week from January to March (6-month period) and work 28 hours a week from April to June (3-month period), as this is an average of 40 hours a week from January to June.

Comment:

This is been a source of endless frustration among both Korean and foreign workers. Before 2018, the work week in Korea was 68 hours a week. YES, you read that correctly. 14 hours a day.

Over the course of two years, Korea has worn down the work week to a maximum of 52 hours (40 regular and 12 overtime), starting with companies with > 300 employees. Starting January 1, 2021, pretty much all companies (>5 employees) must observe this rule.

Employees under the age of 18 may generally work no more than seven hours per day and 40 hours per week, although, by agreement with the youth and his or her parents, employers may extend this by one hour per day or six hours per week. Labor Standards Act Amendments, 2018, Sec 50-52.

Overtime in Korea

Overtime is any work beyond 8 hours a day and 40 a week. Any work is overtime if it exceeds 8 hours a day regardless of whether or not the weekly working hours exceed 40.

Both parties can agree up to 12 hours of overtime a week. This must be agreed to under authorization of the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

According to Article 56, overtime pay is 1.5 times the ordinary wage.

According to Article 57, an employer may give vacations in lieu of paying for or night work, upon agreement by both parties.

Nighttime work in Korea

Same thing as overtime pay. Articles 56-57. It is called the “nighttime premium and is 1.5 times regular pay. Vacations can also be given in lieu of payment for nighttime work.

Comment:

As you may expect based on what you’ve read, insisting on overtime pay may be met with resistance. To be clear, Koreans are expected to work overtime and do whatever it takes to complete the task. And asking for overtime may be considered as selfish or “rocking the boat”.

For most expats, especially English teachers, they are here temporarily (1-2 years) or working in a job that is not career-oriented (teaching, tutoring, editing, restaurant, etc.). So for these expats, it’s not worth considering long-term career aspirations or office politics with how your boss or co-workers view you. These expats main concern is money.

I recommend that these expats insist on their justified overtime pay, since career considerations are absent. However, for long-term expats in business/office jobs, this can be quite the culture shock. You will have to judge each situation for yourself.

How many public holidays in Korea?

Article 55

Before January 1, 2020, there was only ONE government-mandated paid holiday in Korea. Yes, you read that right. It was Labor Day (May 1). In practice, most Koreans did get other major holidays off. Particularly, Korean thanksgiving (Chuseok) and New Years (Seollal).

However, that didn’t stop MANY smaller companies and retail/food businesses from staying open even during major holidays. And yes, this included many hagwons and academies. I have first hand experience of being forced to work during Korean “red days”, which are public/federal holidays.

Fortunately, the following list of holidays is now mandated to all private workers:

  • Jan. 1 (New year’s day)
  • Feb. 4 to 6 (Lunar new years days: – December 31st, January 1st and 2nd on the lunar calendar)
  • March 1st (Independence movement day)
  • Children’s day
  • Buddha’s birthday
  • Memorial day
  • Aug. 15 (Independence day)
  • Chuseok/Thanksgiving
  • National foundation day
  • Korean Alphabet day
  • Dec. 25 (Christmas day)
  • Election days based on the Public Official Election Act
  • Other days temporarily designated by the government

Holidays on Non-Work Days

If the holiday falls on a weekend it is moved to the next workday. 

Pay for Work on Holiday

An employee who works for less than eight hours on a day-off or holiday is entitled to 150% of the ordinary wage as holiday allowance.

Comment:

There will apparently be more holidays added soon. This will vary depending on company size. If you are working in a hagwon or academy, it will likely have greater than 5 but less than 30 employees. In that case, the hagwon will NOT have to give you extra holidays until after 2022.

Just a personal note, 2020 has really sucked in this regard. Besides the obvious COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 in Korea has had no less than 5 public red day holidays fall on weekends.

And even though most companies will give the following Monday off, trust me, it’s not always the case.

Annual Vacation Days in Korea

You must work at least 80% of the working year, and you are entitled to 15 days of vacation.

Very important for new expats to Korea:

You are entitled to 1 day’s vacation per month (i.e. 11 days in 1st year) if you:

  • Have worked consecutively for less than one year or;
  • Have clocked less than 80 percent of attendance for one year, if the worker has offered work without an absence throughout a month.

If you don’t take the vacation days, they can be terminated due to time lapse.

The following do NOT count towards your vacation time:

  • Time off due to any injury or sickness arising out of duty
  • Pregnancy leave
  • Childcare leave

Comment:

Most expats jump between jobs. This means a lot of first-year jobs, which is why I included that section. Make sure your company adheres to this law!

I personally have experience working at an admissions consulting company in Korea where they did honor this policy. Getting up to 15+11 vacation days per year is quite nice and a huge change compared to previously.

Minimum Wage

The minimum wage is decided annually by the Minister of Labor in consultation with the Minimum Wage Council.

The hourly minimum wage as of January 1, 2020 is 8,590 Won.

Paid Leave in Korea

The following information will be amended starting in 2022. The Korean Government will be making addition funds available for new mothers to boost the low birth rate. See KoreaTimes article here.

Paternity & maternity leave in Korea

Pregnant women get 90 days of maternity leave and 120 days if pregnant with twins before and after childbirth. 45 days of leave can be taken after birth.

pregnant-woman

The first 60 days of maternity leave is paid, according to Article 18 of the Equal Employment Opportunity and Work-Family Balance Assistance Act.

For nursing, mothers are allowed two 30 minute nursing periods only if the child is younger than 1 year.

Article 10 of the Mother and Child Health Act allows pregnant women to take paid time off for medical examinations.

For paternity leave, there is only 10 days allowed. Fathers can request this within 90 days of birth. Fathers can also divide this into two sections, according to the Act on Equal Employment and Support for Work-Family Reconciliation.

Childcare

Parents whose child is not older than 8 years or not older than 2nd grade can receive up to one year of paid childcare leave by the Employment Insurance Fund.

But this paid leave is only 40% of one’s normal wage. Typically, the mother, if working, will take this while the father will continue to work full-time.

Menstruation Leave

According to Article 73 of the Labor Act, all women are entitled to menstrual leave for 1 day per month.

Comment:

For obvious reasons, this is quite controversial in Korea considering Korean men must do two years of mandatory military service, which delays their entrance into the workforce. I’m told while it’s looked down upon in more conservative offices, it’s not uncommon in younger, smaller, and female-oriented offices. I’m told that many women use their 1 day to run errands.

How many sick days in Korea?

This is another non-worker friendly policy.

Employers are only required to pay for sick leave if there’s an occupational injury or illness. Unfortunately, many hagwons and academies are concrete about this. However, better hagwons and offices definitely offer paid sick leave for non-work ailments upon receipt of proof of illness from a doctor.

doctors-visit
You better have a doctor’s note if you take a sick day

Comment:

Personally, I’ve never taken a sick day ONCE in Korea. This is another personal call. In Korean culture, you are expected to come in even when sick, although with coronavirus, this hopefully will change.

Unfortunately for English teachers at hagwons or academies, it is very very difficult to take sick days. Hagwons are notorious for never wanting their teachers to miss days. I certainly never did in many years of teaching, even when I had pink eye.

Fortunately, offices are much more lenient. If you find yourself working as a professional in a business setting, taking a sick day or two is not a big deal.


Important Changes to Employment and Labor Law for 2021

I will continue to update this section with interesting news or changes as time goes on:

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