updated 19 Jul 2014, 05:32
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Thu, Jun 05, 2014
The Korea Herald/ANN
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Balancing work and family
by Lee Sun-young

Jennifer Soft, a small software venture in Paju, north of Seoul, has a lengthy not-to-do list for its 26 workers.

"Never say, 'I'm in a meeting. Call me later,'" reads one of the 33 things on the list, with an explanation: "No meeting is more important than a phone call from your family."

Another reads, "Don't sacrifice yourself for work. Put your life first."

The IT firm, which sells an eponymous software product here and abroad, is called a "dream company" by many jobseekers here because of its generous perks and European-style working rules ― a 35-hour workweek with great freedom given to employees to schedule their own time at office.

The company's seemingly unparalleled employee benefits started with a simple question that its founder and CEO Lee Won-young had: "Wouldn't workers with a happy family be better at work?"

Jennifer Soft is a rarity in Korea, a nation of workaholics.

But its philosophy resonates with a growing number of workers, government officials and even some employers, as the country seeks to replace its culture of hard work with a flexible, efficient and family friendly one in the face of a low birthrate, an aging labour force and a slowing economic growth engine.

Long working hours and short leaves have long been a key feature of Korea Inc. in the war-ravaged country's transformation into Asia's fourth-largest economy.

"To escape the acute postwar poverty, Koreans were forced to choose work over life," said Hong Seung-ah, director of the family policy centre at the Korea Women's Development Institute.

"But things have changed greatly since then. People now have different values and priorities and they want a balance between work and family," she said.

The low birthrate and a rapidly aging population are taking their toll on the economy. It is said that without tapping into the female workforce (only about a half of Korean women aged 15-64 participate in the labour force), Korea won't be able to continue its economic growth.

Child care is a major reason women in their 20s and 30s are quitting their jobs, statistics show. Four in 10 women on a career break in the age group cited the lack of child care support as the reason for quitting work.

"There is no way that our society and economy can be sustained without helping working moms and dads raise their kids," Hong said.

The government has been rolling out measures, providing support for working moms and dads and encouraging employers to make their companies more family friendly.

One measure that proved effective so far is a state subsidy for parental leave takers.

Workers taking time off from work for child care jumped to nearly 70,000 in 2013 from 58,000 in 2011 when the government started giving out a maximum of 1 million won ($980) a month to those on leave. The cap on the monthly subsidy is soon to rise to 1.5 million won.

The government is now taking a step further, to make the parental leave more available for fathers, stressing that the work-family balance is an equally important issue for male workers.

Only 2,293 men took parental leave last year, just 3.3 per cent of the total. The government aims to increase that number to 10,000 in the next few years. In European countries like Norway, Sweden and Germany, programs to encourage fathers' use of child care leave proved to be efficient in bringing about a fundamental change at workplaces, officials say.

"Family friendly policies should not be seen as extra costs," Minister of Gender Equality and Family Cho Yoon-sun said in her speech to a group of CEOs this week. "They are investments for future growth."


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