Those working irregular hours forced to take second or even third jobs after work week cut from 68 to 52 hours

Kim Jeong-cheol wakes up every morning at 6am to deliver packages to Seoul’s wealthier residents, and spends every night ferrying those same people home after a night out, ending his working day well past midnight. He also works at a cosmetics distribution company he runs from his home with his wife.

Kim is one of many in South Korea’s capital to have taken on extra jobs as part of the unintended consequence of a law aimed at capping working hours and giving people more free time.

On 1 July South Korea cut the maximum weekly work hours to 52, down from 68. But the new regulation intended to combat long hours in Seoul’s steel and glass office towers has backfired for many doing manual or irregular labour, with people flocking to poorly regulated industries and facing pay cuts.

Kim added his delivery job – for South Korea’s national post – after the new law meant more office workers went home early, reducing the number of driving jobs at night. Kim, who has three daughters to support through university, now works about 19 hours a day.

“We used to be a happy family, I spent a lot of time with my daughters and when I had some free time I read the Bible,” the 59-year-old said. “Lawmakers are just passing new laws which only benefit the powerful and wealthy.”

Kim Jeong-cheol from Seoul works about 19 hours a day now after a law meant to reduce working hours was enacted. Photograph: Benjamin Haas for the Guardian

Kim, whose income dropped 40% after the law came in, is not alone. A woman who would give only her surname, Park, began working in a convenience store after she lost about 500,000 won ($445) a month due to the cap on working hours. A builder named Seo took a second job working as a type of unofficial bus service when hours were cut to comply with the law.

The National Assembly estimated that 150,000 labourers would face an average pay cut of 410,000 won a month when the law was passed due to working less overtime.About a third of South Korea’s labour force works in jobs with irregular hours, such as construction, driving, cleaning or convenience store clerks, according to government statistics.

‘Life with evenings’

In the 1960s, the nation’s economy expanded rapidly, turning a country still reeling from the 1950-53 Korean war into the 12th largest economy in a generation. It has produced national champions like Samsung, Hyundai and LG, massive conglomerates that wield significant political influence, but that achievement has come at the expense of leisure time.

South Korean workers have some of the longest working weeks among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, behind only Mexico. Last year the average person worked 2,024 hours, or about 38.9 hours a week. The group of mostly developed economies does not include countries such as China and India, and developing countries tend to work more.

This gruelling work environment has been blamed for a host of societal problems, from a low birth rate to plummeting productivity. Chung Hyun-back, the family and gender equality minister, has called working hours “inhumanely long” and said they have contributed to the South’s rapidly ageing society.

But South Koreans still work about 340 more hours a year compared with workers in the UK and Australia – about nine additional standard work weeks – despite having relatively similar average incomes. They work about six additional weeks compared with counterparts in the US.

Kim Jong-yong, a driver and labour organiser, says he has been banned by a taxi app for advocating for workers rights. Photograph: Benjamin Haas for the Guardian

There is a strong case for tackling the culture of long hours. Working more than 50 hours a week causes a drop in productivity, according to researchers at Stanford University, and there was little different in output for employees who worked between 56 and 70 hours.

Despite hardships faced by workers paid by the hour, office workers have rejoiced at the new law. Some have long complained of a culture that expected employees to stay late despite a lack of work. Others say bosses would routinely assign extra tasks outside normal hours, leading many employees to procrastinate all day since they knew they had to stay late regardless of workload.

Seoul’s city hall cuts electricity to the building at 7pm on Fridays and some private companies broadcast reminders throughout the week telling people to go home earlier. Retailers and bakeries have reduced opening times by an hour in some cases and more aggressive tactics include CCTV cameras monitoring offices for stragglers and limiting hours when employees can use swipecard systems. Employers who violate the law face up to two years in prison and hefty fines.

“It’s very difficult to tell your boss or other people above you that you’re going home earlier than them when they’re still in the office. I even had to tell them that I was sorry to leave if I had plans,” says Jay Jung, 27, who works in hospital management. Beforehand, he typically did at least two to three hours of overtime a day. “The so-called ‘life with evenings’ is possible now because we can go home on time,” he adds.

‘A last resort’

But working-class people have largely mocked the new law for forcing them to take second or third jobs, saying: “Instead of a life with dinner, there’s a new life where you have to skip dinner.”

About 20,000 people have flocked to become on-demand chauffeurs since the new law passed, according to Kim Jong-yong, head of the Korean Association of Relief Drivers. Companies have lowered fares amid the influx of new workers, and Kim says he has been blocked by the largest app after advocating for workers rights.

All the fanfare about the cap on working hours has left Kim wondering: “Where are the legal protections for us?”

“The 52-hour law was meant to benefit all workers, however it’s only positively affecting people working in stable, high-paying jobs such as civil servants and people working in corporate companies,” he said. “Taking a second job is the only thing keeping these people off the streets, it’s a last resort.

“Their struggles are a reflection of how Korean society treats and values working-class people.”

Additional reporting by Junho Lee

Read more: