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S. Koreans wary over plans to work less, play more

23 june 2011, 10:14
South Korea is considering shifting office hours and school holidays to encourage its hard-working citizens to spend more, but the initiative to boost domestic demand has met with a wary response, AFP reports.

While exports are booming and growth figures are healthy, analysts agree that the general public doesn't feel better off -- a potential problem ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next year.

A recent meeting of the cabinet and other top officials suggested some ways to decrease the economy's dependence on exports by stimulating domestic spending which will help small businesses and lower-income earners.

One idea is to advance the work day for civil servants and other public-sector workers by one hour to 8:00 am to 5:00 pm from the current 9:00 am to 6:00 pm, so they have more time with families and -- hopefully -- spend more.

Also being considered is the break-up of the long school winter holiday to create spring and autumn breaks, and encouraging public-sector workers to take more leaves of absence.

Korea's bitterly cold winters discourage domestic family tourism.

Substitute holidays may also be allowed during the week when public holidays fall on weekends.

Officials also considered regulating the opening hours of large discount stores to help mom-and-pop outlets and traditional markets. Specific policies will be announced later this month.

"Regardless of statistical proof of the (economic) recovery, many people aren't feeling it," the Korea JoongAng Daily said Tuesday in an editorial. But it decried the "trivial solutions" put forward.

"If the administration hopes to rekindle frozen demand, it must get rid of the biggest obstacle of all: numerous regulations of service industries," the paper said.

"Only when quality service jobs are created will people feel the trickle-down."

Kim Chang-Bae, of the Korea Economic Research Institute, also had his doubts about the proposals.

"The intention and direction to increase domestic consumption are right, but I don't know whether such policies are going to be effective and practical, or whether they could be realised in the first place," Kim told AFP.

While large export-oriented corporations are flourishing, he said, the service sector and medium-small enterprises are relatively less successful -- and that affected perceptions of the economy.

South Koreans as of 2009 worked longer hours than any other member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development -- an average 2,232 hours a year or 46.6 hours per week, according to OECD data.

But this does not translate into extra productivity, the OECD says.

And some officials fear that even if office hours are shifted back one hour, peer pressure will keep public-sector employees at their desks until the same time as previously.

Online postings echoed such suspicions.

"It just means we will be going to work one hour earlier and leaving at the same time," wrote Kim Jin-Sung on nate.com, a leading portal.

"One way or the other, we will be working overtime," agreed Lee Seung-Woo.

Others said they have no extra cash to spend, anyway.

"Inflation has been surging lately, so I can't spend money on anything, let alone leisure. We'll probably hang out at the park or other free public spaces," posted Cha Sang-Min.

Economists agree the country should lessen its dependence on export-led growth.

The International Monetary Fund last week urged Korea to strengthen its non-tradable sector "in light of increasing export-dependence and the associated vulnerability to external shocks, and rising inequality".

Policymakers say the weekend proposals are not just about boosting the domestic economy but also about improving citizens' quality of life.

The labour ministry believes shorter hours could improve both lifestyles and productivity.

A 40-hour work-week introduced in 2004 for big firms will be extended next month to companies with fewer than 20 employees -- a move estimated to cover about two million people.

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