South Koreans are working themselves to dying. The federal government hopes to vary that


“I assumed we took some pictures collectively,” she says, scrolling by means of her telephone, speaking to herself. “Did not we take one on that journey?”

As her daughter tries to jog her reminiscence, Park lastly finds one: of her husband in his work garments, a white decontamination swimsuit and head masking.

Chae Soo-hong labored at a meals provider specializing in jangjorim, a well-liked Korean aspect dish of pork cooked in soy sauce. His main responsibility was to ensure manufacturing was as much as commonplace and on time.

In the course of the week he would journey to the corporate’s factories and oversee manufacturing. On Saturdays, he went to the primary workplace to do paperwork. Even after coming residence from work, his job wasn’t executed: although it wasn’t his specific responsibility, he’d usually spend the night fielding calls from manufacturing unit workers, largely international migrant employees who wanted assist adjusting to life in South Korea.

“When he first entered the corporate in 2015, it had about 30 workers. By the point he died, the corporate had grown to 80 workers however his duties stored growing,” Park advised CNN.

Chae Soo-hong and Park Hyun-suk throughout happier occasions.

Park initially struggled to search out pictures of her husband not working.

As the corporate took on extra work, Chae was anticipated to tackle increasingly more work himself, to the extent that when he was at residence he was so fatigued he spent most of his time sleeping.

Chae died round 7 p.m. on a Saturday in August 2017. Within the morning, as he ready to go in to the workplace, similar to each weekend earlier than, he had complained of feeling drained however Park did not assume a lot of it — he was all the time drained.

“I ought to have seen the signal that he was feeling unwell,” she mentioned. “He did not come residence that day.”

Chae’s coworkers discovered him collapsed on the ground of his workplace. A precise reason behind dying was by no means decided.

He was considered one of a whole lot of people that died in 2017 as a consequence of overwork, in response to authorities information. Among OECD countries, South Koreans work extra hours per week on common than all however one different nation, and nearly 50% greater than famously industrious Germany.

In July, the federal government legislated to cut back the utmost working hours from a staggering 68 per week to 40, with 12 hours of paid time beyond regulation, in what President Moon Jae-in mentioned can be an “necessary alternative to maneuver away from a society of overwork and transfer towards a society of spending time with households.”

“An important factor is that it is going to be a elementary resolution to defending the lives and security of the individuals by lowering the variety of deaths from overwork, industrial accidents and sleep-deprived driving,” Moon mentioned.

However for these households who’ve already paid the price of overwork, the distress continues — as does the battle for compensation.

Preventing for compensation

Since Chae died on the workplace, Park assumed his dying can be categorized as work-related and be coated by employees’ compensation.

She quickly discovered this may be way more difficult than first thought. The Korea Employees’ Compensation and Welfare Service (COMWEL), a governmental physique, required her to show unequivocally that Chae died on the job.

“It was a problem. He (often) left residence at 7am and got here residence at 10pm however there was no work log displaying his working hours,” Park mentioned.

The breakthrough got here when she found {that a} freeway toll sales space her husband handed on a regular basis had a surveillance digicam with timestamped footage. Even then nonetheless, as a result of Chae labored in a special workplace on Saturdays, she could not discover footage for that day.

Whereas South Korean legislation doesn’t formally acknowledge dying by overwork, COMWEL regards deadly coronary heart assaults or strokes suffered whereas working greater than 60 hours per week for 3 months as eligible for office dying compensation — funds from which is usually a main assist to households all of the sudden left with out a breadwinner.

Even with out proof of his Saturday hours, Park was capable of present that her husband labored nicely over 180 hours within the weeks main as much as his dying, changing into one of many fortunate few capable of get COMWEL to approve a gwarosa case.

Pedestrians cross a road in the Gangnam district of Seoul. South Korea has some of the longest working hours in the world.

Lethal obsession

As soon as a month since Chae’s dying, Park and a dozen or so others have gathered in a small classroom a mile south of the Han river close to Noryangjin, subsequent to the most important fish market in Seoul. Members haven’t got a lot in frequent besides that they’ve misplaced a member of the family — sometimes a father or husband — to overwork.

Kang Min-jung based the group after her uncle, who had raised her from childhood, died on the job.

“When he died, I requested why. Why he needed to work a lot. I made a decision to check deaths by overwork in Japan,” she mentioned.

Japan has been learning the phenomenon because the 1980s, because it tried to become familiar with its personal deadly work tradition, and as we speak is the one nation to mandate by legislation that the federal government research and try and treatment the issue.

When she returned to Korea, Kang started organizing meetups for these affected by overwork deaths. This hasn’t been simple — solely three individuals got here to the primary assembly — with many unaware of the difficulty or that they could possibly be entitled to compensation underneath the nation’s labor legislation.

This blindness to overwork extends to these most vulnerable to dying on the job, like Chae.

“He should have thought that working like that was regular. He’s a part of the newborn boomer era, which emphasizes working exhausting and doing the responsibility as the person of the household. He did not complain and did not take a break,” Chae’s spouse mentioned.

“Korea is a society that calls for overworking. They demand you to work lengthy hours. They assume that working lengthy means working nicely and being productive.”

Of the 36 members of the Organisation for Financial Co-operation and Growth (OECD), South Koreans labored extra hours per week on common than every other member state besides Mexico and Costa Rica, which is at present making use of to affix the group.

In addition to actually killing employees, there may be little signal these lengthy hours are translating into tangible advantages: information exhibits South Korea is among the many backside third least productive OECD countries.

Gradual progress

Kim Woo-tark, a labor lawyer who attends Kang’s conferences and helps households with COMWEL purposes, mentioned the overworking tradition is a remnant of the Korean Warfare — the still technically ongoing conflict which has formed many aspects of South Korean society.

“As a result of (South) Korea needed to rapidly get again on its toes after the Korean Warfare, a construction was created that forces every employees to do a large amount,” Kim mentioned. “That construction has turn into a tradition, a customized.”

President Moon got here to energy final 12 months promising to curb working hours and enhance circumstances. The 52-hour week went into drive on July 1 this 12 months, however correct enforcement is not going to start till January 2019 and can initially be restricted to firms with greater than 300 workers.

One of many first firms to adapt with the legislation is KT, previously Korea Telecom. Employees can now see clock-off occasions on their screens and managers encourage them to go residence quite than work time beyond regulation.

Kim Jung-jun, who works for the corporate’s public relations division, mentioned that his supervisor will ring a bell day-after-day and announce loudly “it is time to go residence, so end up your work.”

Within the three months because the legislation got here into drive, Kim mentioned he sleeps extra and has extra time for household and associates.

The legislation has additionally introduced broader advantages to society: the Ministry of Labor introduced in August that some 43,000 jobs had been created by the change, as firms have been compelled to rent extra employees quite than drive present workers to do additional hours.

Workers for Korea Post sort packages and letters. The company has faced repeated pressure from workers and the government to reduce employee hours on the job.

Organizing for motion

Not each employer has responded so nicely to the change.

Jeong Hak-dong is a postal supply employee in Ilsan, a satellite tv for pc metropolis northwest of Seoul. He mentioned that because the new work week got here into drive, not a lot has modified.

“The administration talks concerning the 52-hour coverage and the way meaning we have to begin work at eight a.m. and end by 6 p.m.,” he advised CNN. “However the actuality is that we’re nonetheless working previous eight p.m.”

On most days, Jeong mentioned he works round 12 hours, “and even then I do not get to complete the work.” He mentioned he was fearful that as drivers rushed to complete their deliveries sooner the chance of site visitors accidents might rise.

Final 12 months, a postal employee who was injured in a crash was nonetheless requested to come back into work. He left a notice complaining of inhumane remedy and killed himself.

In July, one other employee set himself on hearth at his workplace. His dying was adopted by two suspected circumstances of deadly overworking in two months by workers of the identical department.

Within the wake of the deaths, members of the Postal Employees’ Union referred to as a relay starvation strike in central Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Sq., a part of a concerted organizing marketing campaign to strain the federal government to finish the six-day work week and rent extra employees as a way to enhance working circumstances and permit workers to go residence on time.

The Blue Home brokered a joint fee in August 2017 between Korea Publish, the nationwide service, the Postal Employees’ Union and impartial specialists to look into working circumstances throughout the business.

Based on the fee’s findings, printed this month, practically 2,000 postal employees have been every doing greater than 3,000 hours of labor per 12 months, upwards of 58 hours per week on common, and the extent of office stress was worse than that reported by nurses, firefighters or fighter pilots.

Following the report, Korea Publish agreed to rent an additional thousand employees subsequent 12 months, with one other thousand to be employed in 2020. Union members welcomed the end result and declared an finish to their starvation strike.

Park Hyun-suk nonetheless receives her husband’s compensation verify each month, a welcome type of assist but additionally a painful reminder of his dying. She welcomed the adjustments underway, however can not help surprise that if it got here earlier issues would have been completely different for her household.

“I am certain it is not simply me, and that others who had the identical expertise are equally haunted by the identical guilt,” she mentioned.

“If solely I acknowledged the indicators. If solely I had reacted with extra sensitivity, then none of this may have occurred. That guilt all the time hurts. I attempt to maintain dwelling, however that feeling is all the time on the backside of my coronary heart.”

Edited by James Griffiths. Graphics by Natalie Leung.

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