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FOCUS : South Koreans Start to Work Less, Buy More

From Reuters

An evening “rush hour” stretching late into the night seems to belie reports that South Koreans are working less and playing more.

But the figures show--and this may come as a surprise to U.S. auto workers or north European shipbuilders--that South Korea’s regimented work force is beginning to lift its collective head from the conveyor belt and live a little more.

Not only are South Koreans working less, they are beginning to enjoy their money on cars, consumer goods, foreign travel, alcohol and entertainment. Per-capita GNP currently stands at around $5,500 a year.

Voracious demand for new cars has led to a delivery backlog of more than two months for the most popular models, buyers complain. Car makers confirm the trend.

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Brewers say Koreans gulped down 304 million bottles of beer last month, a three-fold year-on-year increase.

The black market in consumer products smuggled off U.S. military bases or through customs is so rampant that the government announced a massive crackdown this month.

Demand for bottled water has become all pervasive, prompting Seoul to abandon a ban on domestic sales.

The luxury had previously been available only to foreigners.

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And tourism has exploded since restrictions on foreign travel were lifted in 1988. That year, 750,000 South Koreans traveled overseas. The total doubled to 1.5 million last year.

Over the past three years, the workweek in smaller South Korean enterprises has dwindled from 51.1 hours to 46.3, the Labor Ministry says.

This compares to a 40-hour week in the United States and a legal workweek of 46 hours in Japan, although up to 40% of Japanese actually work 49 hours, the ministry said.

Laws passed last year set a 44-hour week ceiling on companies employing more than 300 workers, and planners are considering a proposal to give workers alternate Saturdays off.

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But critics say South Korea has popped the champagne cork too early and “shirking” workers threaten to sabotage the economy.

“This is no time for Korean youth to take their leisure like young people in foreign advanced nations,” thundered Park Chang-seok, assistant economic editor of the Korea Times.

Most South Koreans, and not just the young, appear to pay little heed to such admonishments.

The manual-labor sector is contracting along with office hours as Koreans seek to plant their feet behind desks and keep their fingernails clean.

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The agricultural work force fell 7.1% in the first half of this year while service-sector employment expanded 6.1%, National Statistical Office figures show.

Against a backdrop of a trade deficit expected to grow to a record $8 billion this year, finger-wagging industrialists and politicians, including Prime Minister Chung Won Shik and the founder of the Hyundai business conglomerate, Chung Ju-yung, have called for a return to austerity, frugality and old-fashioned hard work.

But a top economic planner, Deputy Prime Minister Choi Kak Kyu, said South Korea cannot turn the clock back to the days when ill-paid workers spent most of their waking hours hunched over a workbench churning out low-cost goods.

Choi told the Korea Times in a recent interview that government policy was directed at developing high technology in core industries and producing technically trained workers to produce high-value products.

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Enterprises that need to employ unskilled labor will have to lure “idle labor” such as homemakers and the elderly back to work by offering improved working conditions, he said.


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