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Working Hours Declining in Asia

All work and no play - that is the image many people have of Asian workers. While it is true that Asians work more hours than people in many countries of the world, more and more governments in the region now opt for shorter working weeks, giving their citizens more time for leisure activities and their families.

Asians work longer hours than just about everyone else in the world. South Koreans, for example, spend more than 45 hours a week on their jobs - 10 more than Australians or New Zealanders. They are outdone by Singaporeans and Indians, who work more than 46 hours a week on average.

A recent report by the International Labor Organization, ILO, finds that while economic growth has pushed up wages in many Asian countries, until recently, that growth had not translated into shorter working hours.

But the author of the report, Gyorgy Sziraczki, believes that the number of working hours in Asia has started to decline.

"It is very much welcomed, because it will give a better chance for workers and their families to enjoy the benefits of globalization and economic growth outside their job and also to have a more productive job with better working conditions, and one of the important aspects of better working conditions is the working time," noted Mr. Sziraczki.

Several countries in the region have introduced five-day work weeks in recent years.

This year, Malaysia and Bangladesh have given their civil servants Saturdays off, while Singapore already introduced a five-day week for civil servants last year.

One of the most dramatic transitions has been in South Korea, where the parliament approved a general Monday-to-Friday workweek in 2003, under an agreement involving government, labor representatives and management.

Other countries, such as the Philippines and China, have added extra public holidays.

Mr. Sziraczki of the ILO expects that shorter working times and increasing spending power will boost the services sector, as people have more time to spend their money.

"These countries will not only rely on export-oriented growth, but national consumption will be important in boosting economic growth, especially the service sector," he said. "Think about tourism, culture, entertainment, think about health, because we are also facing aging societies in many parts of Asia, so this will certainly be a boost for the economy."

The ILO says that what is needed is not only a reduction in working time, but also more flexibility in work hours. Both businesses and workers would profit if working hours can be adjusted according to demand, allowing workers to better control their days. And, as many economies in the region see a growth in service industries, such as hotels and restaurants, which need flexible work schedules, more flexibility could help boost growth.