Bugger Seoul, I’m off to Paris

Another recent article in the JoongAng Daily reports on the Korean long-hours culture. I experienced this first-hand during my recent trip to Seoul. I thought I’d call in at the office, and maybe encourage my colleagues out for a beer or two. I was due to turn up at around 6pm, but because I spent rather too long buying books at the Royal Asiatic Society, it was more like 6:45pm by the time I showed up. It was Friday evening, and I felt terrible that Yon-sook and others would be staying unnecessarily at the office waiting for this tedious foreigner to show up. I need not have worried. The office was still packed, and far from being ready for a welcome beer to kick off the weekend they were all staying at their desks for another couple of hours. So I went off to SoundDay in Hongik on my own. They told me those sort of hours were pretty standard.

Tom Coyner has more comprehensive evidence:

According to my upcoming book’s1 interviews with foreign managers working in Korean corporations, it seems almost no real work really gets started until about 4:30 or 5:00 PM each day. The diligent expat often finds little to do during the morning and early afternoon — so even if he or she tries to get on top of everything in the hope of getting off work at a reasonable time, the foreigner too often discovers a deluge of must-be-finished-ASAP work dropping on the desk in the late afternoon. It’s not surprising that a great deal of the real work takes place in the evenings.

Here are some extracts from the JoongAng article:

Koreans worked more hours than workers in other comparably well-developed countries, despite a decline in hours spent working over the past several years, a government report said.

The results, released yesterday, came from a survey of firms with more than five full-time employees. The average time a person spent working was 191.4 hours a month in the first 11 months of 2006, said the Labor Ministry.

The 191.4 hours represents 17.1 hours of overtime — which means a standard working month is 174.3 hours. The numbers are gradually trending down because of the phased introduction of the five-day work week, which began in July 2004.

Before the five-day workweek was introduced, Koreans worked an average of 198.2 hours a month in 2003. This fell to 197.2 hours in 2004.

Authorities, however, said Koreans still worked the most out of people living in the 30 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In 2005, Koreans worked an average of 2,354 hours, 629 hours longer than the average of OECD countries in the same year.

During 2005, French employees spent 1,546 hours at work. British and U.S. workers averaged 1,659 and 1,713 hours, respectively, while Japanese workers punched in 1,775 hours.

The above statistics don’t look too scary, from one perspective. For Korea in 2006 they equate to a standard 8 hour working day, plus just under 50 minutes of overtime. For your average London City professional, that’s a short day. But I guess your average City lawyer is not the average worker.

Another bit of arithmetic: assuming a 240-day working year, your average French working day in 2005 was 6 hours 26 minutes and 30 seconds. And decent wine into the bargain.

The facts and figures seem to tally with a UBS survey published a few months back, though according to UBS your average Parisian has an even easier life than indicated above.

  1. Mastering Business in Korea – A Practical Guide
    A 270-page book by Tom Coyner and Jang Song-Hyon
    Due for release on Monday, March 5th.
    To order, go to www.seoulselection.com. []

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