Young mother’s sudden death spotlights South Korea’s birth, labor dilemma

A mother and child in Noryangjin, Seoul. (Credit: Richard Lee / Flickr)

How does a country with the lowest birth rate in the world and a dramatically slowing economy encourage women to have more babies and work? South Korea is facing this question once again after a young mother’s sudden death from overwork recently captured headlines.

The unnamed 34-year-old mother of three was described by media outlets as an “elite employee,” who passed the very competitive civil service exam with the highest marks. She had just returned from maternity leave to her job at the Ministry of Health and Welfare one week before her death on Jan. 15.

After a week of 12-hour shifts, she continued to work over the weekend, clocking in at 5 a.m. on Sunday in order to finish early and take care of her children. Sadly, she never made it out of the office, dying of a heart attack instead.

Death from overwork is so common in South Korea, there is actually a term for it: kwarosa. The latest victim was a postal worker who died on Feb. 6. It’s a cultural phenomenon in neighboring Japan, as well, where some employers are intentionally not enforcing tardy policies in an effort to prevent kwarosa.

According to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average Korean works 2,113 hours per year. Only Costa Ricans and Mexicans beat that at 2,230 hours and 2,246 hours respectively. The average U.S. worker, in comparison, only logs 1,790 hours a year, while the average German works 1,371 hours a year – just over 26 hours a week.

But the problems facing South Korea are more than just a culture of overwork. Despite all that overtime, the economy has slowed down dramatically. In 2010, the GDP was growing at 6.5 percent; now, it’s sitting at 2.6 percent.

A recent study by the Asian Development Bank estimates that removing gender bias in education, the labor market and the household would raise per capita income in a “typical Asian economy” by 30.6 percent. Over a generation, aggregate income in South Korea would increase by 4 percent.

Still, women in Asia are 70 percent less likely to be in the labor force than men. According to the World Bank, only 50 percent of South Korean women in 2014 participated in the labor force, and a chart published today by the Economist ranks South Korea last among 29 OECD countries for chances of equal treatment in the workplace. It accounted for “higher education, workforce participation, pay, child-care costs, maternity and paternity rights, business-school applications and representation in senior jobs.”

The glass-ceiling index measures gender equality in the labor market (Credit: The Economist)

Although more women have been entering university than men since 2009, women in South Korea are also significantly more likely than men to leave the labor force when starting a family – something the country desperately needs women to do.

South Korea’s fertility rate is now the lowest in the world at 1.2, according to the World Bank. The global average in comparison is 2.4. The prospect of an aging population and shrinking workforce casts a foreboding shadow on the country’s economic future.

It seems that women are consequently stuck in the quandary of societal expectations. On the one hand, they want to – and should – pursue careers, so they go on “birth strike.” On the other hand, society needs them to have more children, but doing so puts their careers at risk.

Policies aren’t necessarily the problem. President Park Geun-Hye, though now embroiled in political corruption scandals, was the first woman to lead an East Asian nation. She had grand plans to create 1.7 million jobs for women and lift their workforce participation rate to 62 percent. Private companies are also mandated by law to offer one year of maternity leave.

However, employers hesitate to hire women of childbearing years, dictate when they can take their maternity leave or, on one occasion, even forced a woman to resign before getting married. A lawmaker is now proposing in a bill that women should be able to start maternity leave on whichever date they see fit, regardless of the employer’s approval.

“Many men still consider maternity leave a paid vacation where women do nothing,” an official from a Seoul-funded support center for working mothers told Korea Times. “And they think giving women this leave is a waste of resources and time. They also question why they need female employees in the first place.”

That same stigma keeps 94 percent of fathers from taking advantage of the 53-week paternity leave they’re allowed – the longest paid paternity leave in the OECD.

Although immigration will help curb some of the labor force issues, the larger problem is one that the country cannot put off for much longer. Since the civil worker’s death in January, the welfare ministry has banned working on Saturdays and is discouraging weekday overtime.

However, “policies that target women with child-rearing responsibilities (rather than housework) appear to be more effective at promoting labor force re-entry,” the Asian Development Bank report said about South Korea.

“South Korean women are expected to be modern career women at daytime and traditional housewives as soon as they go home in the evening … so why bother to get married?” Lee Na-Young, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul told AFP. “In this environment, I wouldn’t be surprised even if more South Korean working mothers are exhausted to death.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.