By Lee Dong-jin
Since Moon Jae-in was elected President in 2017, the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and the Ministry of Employment and Labor have enacted and amended many labor laws. Accordingly, a lot of labor issues have arisen in various industries, and their biggest impact was felt by the computer game industry.
“Crunch mode” has recently become a popular word in Korea. It refers to long periods of overtime, which forces employees to sacrifice sleep, nutrition and hygiene to develop a game product quickly.
At first it was an informal term used between people who work in the game industry. However, it gained broader currency through some incidents like the suicide of a young employee who worked for a well-known Korean game development company due to too much work and stress during such a “crunch mode” period.
Even though Korea is known as a country where employees’ actual working hours are excessively high, the game industry is much more severe on that point because companies are always pushed to meet deadlines to launch new games.
To protect employees’ rights, many restrictions and obligations on employers have been enacted in recent labor law changes.
The maximum number of weekly work hours have been lowered from 68 hours to 52 hours (40 statutory work hours plus 12 hours of overtime), and the government will soon ban blanket wage systems that lead to “free OT” (unpaid overtime work).
Labor unions have begun to be established in the game industry. Employers are obligated to prohibit workplace harassment, which is defined as instances in which someone uses their status in the workplace to cause someone else physical or mental suffering, or worsen their working environment. Since 2020, public holidays for government officials must be treated as paid holidays.
Many measures to protect employees have been taken (although they still seem insufficient), but to ensure the sustainability and competitiveness of game companies, we should also discuss how to increase their efficiency.
In lieu of such employee-friendly policies, companies want to increase the duration of the flexible working hour system from three months to at least six months (under the current system, companies can order additional overtime work on top of the 52 working hours, provided that the average weekly working hours during a three-month period shall be 40 hours).
It is to some extent reasonable for game companies to have a flexible working hour system because they sometimes have to prepare to launch a game, and employ all of their energy and resources during that time. However, it is also precisely those times when employees’ rights can be violated because of too much work.
Because a flexible working hour system is intended to adjust working hours in line with the workload, it should be possible for employees and companies to find a solution agreeable to both parties ― employees and companies. In this regard, the ball to solve the problem is now in the hands of the National Assembly, which has been paralyzed for more than two months due to internal disputes about other issues.
Lee Dong-jin is an associate at HMP Law and a member of the Tech & Comms team.