Asia embraces five-day working week

Asians work harder than just about anyone else on Earth, but their societies and economies are being transformed as many nations shift to a five-day working week and citizens discover the weekend.

Offices are being abandoned on Saturdays, allowing workers to flock to shopping centres, theme parks and vacation destinations—triggering profound changes that will continue unfolding for decades, economists say.

Even in Japan, where death from overwork became so common that it was given its own name, karoshi, school and working hours are gradually being confined to Monday to Friday, and the number of public holidays has been increased.

But Japanese workers still put in an impressive 42 hours each week, and they are outdone by the South Koreans and Singaporeans who spend an average of 46 hours at the grindstone, according to International Labour Organisation (ILO) figures.

“Workers in developing Asia still work more hours than most of their global counterparts,” the ILO said in a recent report, noting that laid-back Australians and New Zealanders toil less than 35 hours a week.

“Working times are still very high, but there is a trend towards declining working hours,” the report’s author Gyorgy Sziraczki said, welcoming the change, which he said allows for more family time and weekend activities.

“The benefits of economic growth are not just higher wages and higher productivity, but also improved quality of life,” he said.

Abandoning the six-day working week

After decades spent turning their economies from backwaters into powerhouses, governments, unions and workers themselves are pushing for six-day working weeks to be abandoned so citizens can enjoy the fruits of their success.

Malaysia is one of the most recent converts, excusing its one million civil servants from their Saturday-morning shift since July, in a move the government said would bolster family bonds and promote domestic tourism.

It has been proven right by the sight of packed highways leading out of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, on public-holiday weekends, as workers take advantage of three-day breaks to visit beach and mountain resorts.

But one of the most dramatic transitions has been in South Korea, where Parliament approved a five-day work week in late 2003 under an agreement involving the government, labour and management.

South Korea’s two umbrella labour groups, with about 1,6-million members known for union militancy, campaiged for the reform that has brought dramatic changes to the national lifestyle.

The leisure and games industry has flourished, auto sales have increased, television broadcasting hours and weekend newspapers have been beefed up, and highways, amusement parks and resort sites are jammed on Saturdays and Sundays.

And in India, while much of the country labours under a six-day week, the weekend culture has taken off in the richer, IT-dominated cities in the south, particularly Pune and Bangalore.

Newspaper reports said weekend business has ballooned as employees of call centres and tech firms take advantage of the extra downtime to spend their earnings in malls, restaurants and multiplexes.

Boost to services sector

Regional economist Song Seng Wun from Singapore-based brokerage CIMB GK said the reduction in working hours will have a major impact on Asia’s export-focused economies by massively boosting the services sector.

“At this juncture, almost all Asian countries are all about exports, selling stuff that they make in factories. From Singapore down to Korea, exports are the key driver of growth,” he said.

“What we do hope to see, although it may not be noticeable in the short term, is that in the next 15 to 20 years the services side of these economies becomes a more important contributor to growth.”

That would transform regional economies into something more like the United States, where the domestic-services sector dominates, and exports are worth less than 10% of gross domestic product, compared with 150% in Singapore, he said.

Song said that the drive to create a five-day working week is also aimed at addressing the problem of ageing populations in Asia’s richer nations, by making life more family friendly.

“It is all linked in terms of what the policy planners hope to achieve, not only that families or individuals have more time to spend on themselves or going shopping or travelling,” he said.

“Especially in Korea, and Singapore in particular, which has been trying to push for more family time ... it is more to essentially get them de-stressed to have a more conducive state of mind to go and make those babies.

“Those countries involved are far enough down the economic growth and development cycle to be able to afford more leisure time for working families.”—Sapa-AFP

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