Ban off-hour messaging? Koreans embrace right to disconnect as part of work culture reform
SEOUL-- Lim Ji-yeon, a working mother of two living in western Seoul, is constantly haunted by mobile phone messages from her clients, which often come even after office hours and disrupt her free time and private life.
"Can't we just make after-hour messaging illegal so that it would at least teach people some manners?" the 36-year-old PR agent told Yonhap News Agency. "KakaoTalk has destroyed the concept of time restrictions and it just drives me crazy."
She is an ardent advocate of a recent government move to guarantee the right to disconnect by restricting off-hours company messaging to employees.
Cyberstress from round-the-clock orders from superiors has surfaced as a growing social issue in a country plagued by a mix of its notorious hard-work culture and advanced digital technology.
Last month, the labor ministry requested Kakao Corp., the operator of the No. 1 mobile messenger, add a new function to allow users to put off after-hours message transmission until the next morning.
Kakao snubbed the suggestion. The app already has functions designed to assist users with off-hour settings and resolving the issue is not a matter of a new tool or a particular platform, it said.
"But we do welcome the proposition from the government about guaranteeing the right to disconnect," it said in a press release.
Korea has notoriously long work hours. According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2016, Koreans logged an average of 2,069 hours per individual annually, the third longest after Mexico and Costa Rica. The OECD average was 1,764 hours.
And digital technology and social media have given Koreans more reasons to work harder, even remotely.
A 2016 study by the Korea Labor Institute (KLI) showed that seven out of 10 office workers worked on their smartphones after work hours. They spent an extra 1 1/2 hours on average working via their digital devices on tasks that were not at all urgent.
"Off-hour work is a habitual practice in Korea," said Kim Ki-sun, a KLI researcher. "Working in the office as long as you can is considered a virtue and a way of proving your loyalty and integrity. This perception is deeply rooted in work culture."
In defiance of the exhausting custom, both public and private sectors have been scrambling to cut off-hour work. Rep. Shin Kyung-min of the Democratic Party proposed a bill last year seeking to ban any work-related communication including phone calls and mobile messaging after hours.
Supporters praised him for taking up the issue to the legislature, while opponents criticized it for being unrealistic.
"They might as well ban KakaoTalk, LINE and everything else, while we all migrate to Snapchat," said Kim Hyun-joon, 32, who works in the IT field. "Good luck with banning that." LINE is a messaging application made by Naver, while Snapchat comes with a self-deleting feature.
Skeptics pointed out that any policy push for limiting mobile access in off hours is of no use, as situations vary across different industries. Any hasty move to prevent mobile communications at work will only undermine productivity in certain fields, they said.
As a more realistic alternative, Rep. Lee Yong-ho of the People's Party in August proposed a revision in the Labor Standards Act to oblige employers to pay an overtime allowance for off-hour work on mobile platforms.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government has announced an ordinance recommending its staff not to give orders to subordinates via mobile messenger apps after work hours.
Some businesses have also joined the move. Mobile carrier LG Uplus Corp. has adopted a new company policy that can penalize staffers for giving online orders during off hours. CJ Group, a food and entertainment conglomerate, has also launched a campaign to ban off-hour mobile texting.
Experts said the moves reflect a growing demand for changing the work culture to improve the balance between work and life. But some disagree with the idea of banning after-work messaging by law, citing low efficiency and the indispensability of smart devices in today's society.
Experts proposed that the government and parliament draw up legislation that obligates a labor-management agreement over after-hours mobile contact.
"A law that compels companies and unions to set voluntary rules, depending on their work environment, is worth being considered," Park Ji-soon, a professor at Korea University Law School, said.
He also underlined the need to hold legally accountable abusive managers who harass staff with excessive numbers of off-hour messages. "That is malicious intent and ... an infringement of privacy."
Source: Yonhap News Agency