S. Korea to jail employers for bullying workers

New law aims to address issue of harassment by those in power; activists say it has limited reach

SEOUL • After enduring months of constant harassment on the job, South Korean office worker Christine Jung finally confronted her aggressor - only to be fired and sued for defamation by her employer.

Her situation is not unusual in South Korea, where employees have traditionally been expected to turn a blind eye to abusive behaviour by those in power - a phenomenon so commonplace that locals have coined a word for it, "gabjil".

But that could soon change, thanks to a revised labour law that comes into effect today. The law will criminalise business owners who unfairly dismiss employees harassed at work.

A recent government survey found that two-thirds of workers had experienced harassment on the job, while 80 per cent had witnessed it.

In one of the most high-profile cases, a daughter of the Korean Air family threw a tantrum after cabin crew served her nuts in a bag instead of a bowl in 2014 - earning her instant notoriety as the "nut rage" heiress.

Rigid company hierarchies, intense competition for jobs and deference to status all contribute to toxic work environments in an economy dominated by family-run conglomerates.

In Ms Jung's case, her harasser was the CEO's father.

"He once told me the building was shaking whenever I walked - because I was 'too fat'. Another time, he tried to follow me to the women's bathroom. And another time, he abruptly groped my stomach in his office," the 37-year-old told Agence France-Presse. "But when I brought up the issue, the management accused me of being a man-hater and a liar."

Ms Jung finally approached the labour ministry last year, but was told her situation did not count as workplace bullying because the aggressor was not her superior and was not a company employee, even though he came to the office "virtually every day", she said.

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  • Number of years in prison for owners of companies that "unfairly demote or dismiss" workers who allege harassment, or a fine of up to 30 million won (S$35,000).

The new law will subject owners of companies that "unfairly demote or dismiss" workers who allege harassment to three years imprisonment or a fine of up to 30 million won (S$35,000).

Employees ordered to write essays for their manager's children, perform "sexy dances" for executives or even pluck out their boss' grey hairs are among the examples documented by labour rights group Workplace Gabjil 119 and other non-profit groups.

Violence has also been reported. In 2016, a university professor was jailed for abusing his former student and employee, beating him with a baseball bat for taking short breaks and forcing him to eat human faeces.

Nursing is notorious for its harsh training and so-called "burn-to-ashes" brutal work culture, with two recent suicides sparking debate about the sector.

And after the South Korean women's curling team, nicknamed the "Garlic Girls", stole the show at last year's Winter Olympics, they too raised allegations of abuse and exploitation by their coaches.

The issue of harassment is present in almost every sector, from K-pop and film to healthcare and academia. But with a weak social safety net and rising unemployment, it is often hard for victims to speak up, as they fear losing their jobs or being demoted.

When one victim complained to his firm's management, he was told: "Then just leave. Can you actually find a job elsewhere? Oh, perhaps at McDonald's?"

Mr Park Jeom-gyu, an activist at Workplace Gabjil 119, told AFP that even with the new law the country "still has a long way to go, since it does not directly criminalise the bullies", only employers who penalise victims for speaking out. "But it's still a meaningful step towards change, as more will feel relatively safer to report when they face harassment at work," he said.

For many Korean workers, including Ms Jung, the new measures have come too late. Instead of receiving an apology from the perpetrator, she was fired by the CEO who later sued her for defamation and libel.

The cases were never brought to trial, but Ms Jung said the disputes at one point made her suicidal. "Those at my ex-employer didn't treat me like a human being - it was as if I were one of their disposable commodities."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2019, with the headline S. Korea to jail employers for bullying workers. Subscribe