Cinema chains are trying to cash in on South Koreans having more free time

Out of the office.
Out of the office.
Image: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
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New rules designed to give more free time to South Koreans—who work some of the longest hours in the world—just kicked in. As of July 1, companies with more than 300 employees must adhere to a 52-hour workweek, down from 68 hours.

While bosses will no doubt grumble, those 16 extra hours could mean a business opportunity for companies offering entertaining ways to spend the extra time. Cinema chains, for example, are already offering discounts for showtimes after working hours on weekdays, hoping to lure unshackled employees—and perhaps get them into a new habit of hitting theaters before heading home. CGV, one of the country’s largest theater chains, is reducing the ticket price by 2,000 won ($1.79) for movies playing between 7pm and 9pm from Monday to Thursday.

Reducing working hours has been a signature issue of South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who said in January, “Overworking must not persist in our society. It is impossible to lead a happy life when long hours and overexertion become routine.”

The new law will make it mandatory for employers to offer paid public holidays, starting in 2020 for large companies (300-plus workers), and in subsequent years for smaller ones. Leading by example, Moon has made it a point to let it be known when he’s taking a vacation day himself.

South Korea regards a regular workweek to be 40 hours. The new law caps overtime work at 12 hours (paywall). During the overtime hours employers must pay time and a half.

Moon is giving employers a six-month grace period to comply with the new law. Violators are subject to up to two years of jail time or fines of up to 20 million won ($17,800).

Some companies, however, started complying before the new law was officially implemented, in some cases shutting down computer networks or card-swipe systems, or installing video cameras to ensure nobody is working late (paywall).

South Korean employees worked 2,024 hours on average in 2017, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation Development (OECD). That’s 265 more than the OECD average, and third behind only Mexico and Costa Rica. But it was a reduction from the 2,069 in 2016, when the country ranked second.

Japan, responding to concerns about karoshi, or death by overwork, also recently moved to reduce working hours. Last week its parliament approved legislation to limit overtime to less than 100 hours a month (paywall).

In South Korea, movie theaters and other businesses stand to benefit from the extra free time, but lawmakers are also hoping to address another issue (paywall) with the new law: the nation’s chronically low birth rate. A little extra free time, the government hopes, will give couples more opportunity for romance—after, perhaps, dinner or a movie.