On 1 July 2018, the South Korean Government officially reduced the maximum weekly hours from 68 to 52 hours for businesses with more than 300 employees, state-run agencies and government offices. From 1 January 2020, businesses with 50 to 299 employees will also be required to comply with the 52-hour workweek. However, the Ministry of Employment and Labor ("Ministry") is expected to announce a grace period for these businesses to implement the reduced working hours. Employers who fail to comply with the reduced working hours could be subject to penalties of up to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to KRW20 million.


Pursuant to amendments to the Labor Standards Act ("LSA"), the maximum weekly working hours (including Saturdays and Sundays), will be reduced from 68 hours to 52 hours.

While the new maximum weekly working hours has been implemented for businesses with more than 300 employees since 1 July 2018, the effective dates of the amended legislation for smaller businesses are as follows:

  • 1 January 2020: Businesses with 50 to 299 employees
  • 1 July 2021: Businesses with 49 or fewer employees

Alternative working hours systems

Employers who obtain a written agreement with a labor union or an employee representative representing the majority of employees (in the absence of a union) to adopt any of the "alternative working hours systems" as described below may be exempt from the 52 hours weekly working hours requirement.

(i) Businesses with sales employees: deemed working hours system for work performed outside of the workplace

Most businesses with employees providing sales services outside the office have already implemented the deemed working hours system. Under this system, employees are deemed to have worked for the prescribed working hours, allowing businesses to comply with the LSA while also limiting any disruption to the employees' work. Nevertheless, this deemed working hours system can only be implemented where employees' working hours cannot be easily tracked, and therefore may not be as appropriate for businesses that manage employees' work hours through electronic means.

(ii) Businesses with employees conducting research: discretionary working hours system

Business with employees engaging in research, development, design and analysis of new products or technology may consider adopting a discretionary working hours system by entering into a written agreement with the employee representative. This system focuses on performance rather than working hours, which may have a positive effect on both employees and employers. However, businesses are still encouraged to carefully consider whether:

  • employees do perform duties for which the discretionary working hours system can be implemented;
  • the nature of the work allows for self-determination by the employees; and
  • the relevant items have been reflected in the written agreement with a duly elected employee representative. 

(iii) Businesses with shift work hours: flexible working hours system

Switching from shift work hours to a flexible working hours system requires businesses to assess whether its employees would be placed at a disadvantage due to unfavourable changes in working conditions. If there is no disadvantage, businesses can adopt and design a policy that best meets the needs of the business by pre-arranging workdays and working hours per day for a period of up to 3 months.

(iv) Businesses with office workers: selective working hours system

Businesses primarily comprised of office workers are generally adopting a selective working hours system, which allows employees the ability to decide when to start and finish work. One of the key benefits of this system is that employees are able to allocate the appropriate number of working hours depending on their individual workload. However, HR teams must ensure they carefully calculate the total working hours, payment of overtime, night-time, and holiday allowance, annual leave, and selection of working hours, among other considerations.

Key Takeaways

While reducing working hours may be a step in the right direction in a nation notorious for working overtime, flexibility around complying with the 52-hour work week requirement is necessary to enhance productivity. Moving forward, businesses will need to assess their working needs and demands and determine the most appropriate alternative working hours system. With increased scrutiny in this area, employers should make this a priority.