Working in South Korea

Work ethics, salaries and holidays

As a foreigner you might need some time to adapt to the Korean attitude of work. This section is intended to help you get orientated and to provide you with some essential information on South Korean working environments.

Job culture

Working in Korea may be a challenge for foreigners who are unwilling to put in the hours and efforts that many Korean nationals are used to. Korea has one of the highest average work weeks and overtime hours in the world. With their rigorous work ethic, you can expect to go beyond your own standards to keep up. However, if you can be committed, the people around you will in return be committed to you.

The idea of developing personal relationship in the workplace may seem foreign to those who are not used to South Korean culture. However, the idea of building trust with other employees is crucial to Koreans in and out of the office. Trust motivates the people; therefore focus on making lasting, personal relationships to show your commitment. Also, keep in mind that while strong personal relationships are encouraged, a ranking of position still exists. Getting too personal may come off as being disrespectful. If you do not give respect where it is due, it is likely that Koreans will be offended.

Working hours

Korean people are known for their intelligence and work ethic. It is no wonder why the country has one of the highest average annual work hours. If you’re planning to find employment in South Korea, you better be prepared to put in a lot of hours and effort. Bonuses are sometimes given, depending on the company.

Luckily, law changes have dropped the maximum workweek down to 40 hours and adopted a 5-day workweek system. Unless you are planning to work for a smaller company (with 5 regular employees or less), the new law applies to you as well. Although some contracts do allow for minor adjustments in hours, the average workweek in any 2-week period is not to exceed the maximum 40 hours. Also, workers may not be required to work more than 12 hours in any given day.

Unluckily, however, little attention seems to be paid to the 40-hour workweek legislation. Most people still work late, with the end of working day often reaching the late evening hours. According to numbers on Koliaf.net “53.5% of the total workforce (as of August 2011) work 5 days a week. In addition, about 21.8% suffered from unlawfully long working hours, exceeding 52 hours per week last year”.

Minors under the age of 18 are not allowed to work unless they have written permission from their parents or guardians. In any case, minors are prohibited from working night shifts except with permission from the Labor Ministry.

The law changes actually created more job opportunities. The limit on the amount of hours means that there is work left to be done after employees finish their 40-hour workweek. Therefore, more people are needed to get the job done.

Salaries

The average salaries for expats differ greatly depending on which company you decide to work for. The hourly minimum wage in effect for 2012 is ₩4,580.

English teachers tend to be well-paid in South Korea, even those with little or no experience. Salaries range from 1.8-2.3 million won per month, schools will pay at the top end of the salary for experienced teachers with related qualifications.

Engineers and high-tech specialists can earn a yearly salary of anywhere between 34-70 million won.

Finding up-to-date numbers for average Korean salaries is a challenge. It may be most efficient for you to discuss pay with a potential employer right off the bat so you know your financial situation. Bear in mind that the cost of living in Korea is lower compared to most other countries. For more information about salaries in South Korea, visit www.glassdoor.com .

Holidays

The Ministry of Labor in Korea has implemented a system in which all workers who do not miss a day of work in one week receive one paid holiday. Employees who do not miss a day of work in a full year are entitled to a 15-day paid vacation and an additional day for each two years of service (maximum of 25 days). Those who do miss days of work should expect a reduction in paid leave time. After the first year of work with a company, every two subsequent years translates into another paid holiday.

Unlike other industries, most English teachers and tutors often enjoy 3 to 4 months of paid vacation time, depending on where you work and what your contract states. Vacation time is decided by your employee and usually set within the school calendar. Vacations are common around August and January.

Koreans use both Solar and Lunar calendars which results in a number of holidays. There are 16 national holidays and most of them are observed by the majority of offices and businesses.

These are:

  • January 1: New Year's Day
  • First day of the first lunar month (February 9-11 2013): Lunar New Year’s Day (Seollal)  
  • March 1: Independence Movement Day
  • May 1: Labor day (Not an official day off, but banks and most businesses are closed)
  • May 8: Parents day (not a day off and business are open as usual)
  • May 5: Children's Day
  • Eighth day of the fourth lunar month (May 17 2013): Buddha's Birthday (Seokka Tanshin-il)
  • June 6: Memorial Day
  • July 17: Constitution Day (a national celebration day, but not a day off)
  • August 15: Liberation Day
  • 15th day of the eighth lunar month (September 18-20 2013): Harvest Moon Festival (Chuesok)
  • October 3: Foundation Day
  • October 9: Hangul Day
  • December 25: Christmas Day
  • December 31-January 2: New Year's (Seol-nal)

Further reading

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Other comments

  • EC, 25 November 2009 Reply

    This seems out of date

    This information seems to be circa 2003 and things like salaries have changed considerably since then.

    Teachers should expect 2.1 to 2.5 million won starting salary. For professional services it would be in the 3 to 10 million won range and for technical professionals salaries should be 5 million won and up.

    Despite the 40-hour workweek legislation, I've noticed little change in actual habits. Most people work late. My usual hours are 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. with an hour for lunch. I often work much later, though.

    As for paid vacation, full-time workers are entitled to 15 days as long as they will be with the company 80% of the calendar year. Otherwise they are entitled to one day for each month.