Workplace sexual harassment in South Korea sparks anger, and tougher penalties for offenders

Newly hired South Korean nurses were reportedly forced to perform a "sexy dance" for officials by a hospital.
Newly hired South Korean nurses were reportedly forced to perform a "sexy dance" for officials by a hospital.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

SEOUL - A string of workplace sexual harassment exposes here in recent weeks has triggered angry calls for boycotts of the companies involved, among them a Hyundai subsidiary. It has also led the government to toughen penalties for offences.

The raging controversy began when a 25-year-old woman put up a post on Nov 3 about how she had been secretly filmed, sexually assaulted and raped by three different colleagues early this year. She had just started work at Hanssem, the country's biggest furniture maker.

She also accused the company, which is known for its women-friendly policies, of covering up instead of investigating the incidents after she reported them.

Her case shocked the country and sparked a fierce backlash, forcing Hanssem chairman Choi Yang Ha to make a public apology the next day. He also promised a thorough investigation into the woman's case.

Since then, more women have come forward with their own stories. In one case, a woman claimed a former colleague had raped her in May while she was working at Hyundai Motor's financial arm Hyundai Card. In another, a group of new nurses at Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital alleged that they were made to dance in skimpy outfits at work-related events.

On Nov 9, the South Korean parliament passed a revised law on gender equality to mete out harsher penalties: Companies that fail to provide anti-sexual harassment training can be fined up to 5 million won (S$6,200), up from 3 million won. Those found guilty of covering up offences face a maximum fine of 30 million won instead of 20 million won.

  • Women tell of rape and humiliation

  • Nov 3: A young female employee at furniture maker Hanssem put up an anonymous post alleging that she was secretly filmed in the bathroom by a male colleague, and also raped by her supervisor after a team dinner in January. 

    The 25-year-old woman claimed she was told to hush up the matter after she reported it to the human resource department. One of its managers tried to sexually harass her.

    She received a pay cut and disciplinary action, and went on two months’ leave in September. She made her story public as she felt anxious after returning to work on Nov 2. Hanssem chairman Choi Yang Ha apologised on Nov 4.

    Nov 4: A contract worker at Hyundai Card, emboldened after reading about the Hanssem case, accused a director in her team of raping her after a company dinner in May, just a month after she joined the company. She claimed in an online post that she reported it to the company, but was told to keep it as a “private matter between two people in a relationship”. Hyundai Card refuted the allegations on Nov 6, insisting in a statement that internal investigations have found the man not guilty. 

    Nov 10: A nurse from Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital wrote online that newly-hired nurses like her were forced to dance in skimpy outfits and make seductive gestures in front of high-ranking officials at a sports event last month. Another nurse said some of them felt humiliated but were told not to make a big deal out of it. The hospital’s owner, Il-song Foundation, has said it will prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. 

The Labour Ministry and Gender Equality Ministry last week announced tougher penalties for workplace sexual harassment, but did not give details. They also promised to launch a public campaign to encourage victims to speak up and raise awareness about how they can report sexual harassment.

The National Human Rights Commission, which received 203 sexual violence cases last year and helped resolve 173 of them, also said it would launch a special investigation into workplace sexual harassment.

The number of workplace sexual harassment reports made to the Labour Ministry has shot up in recent years from 249 cases in 2012 to 556 last year. There are already 2,190 so far this year, but only nine suspects have been indicted.

In the United States, allegations made against Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein last month brought to light the issue of workplace sexual harassment, which has since implicated a long list of other media and entertainment figures, and also politicians.

In South Korea, a sexual harassment charge carries a fine of up to 15 million won or 10 years' jail.

But experts say awareness about what constitutes a sexual harassment offence is still low in this patriarchal society. A survey by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family last year showed that 78 per cent of victims chose to keep mum as they did not think anything could be done to help them.

Seoul National University law professor Lee Jae Min thinks there is "still room for Korea to grow" in terms of protecting victims. While the law and systems are in place, the real problem is the male-dominated culture in the workplace, he said.

Studies have shown that most cases involve a boss or senior colleague, and victims hesitate to speak up for fear of losing their jobs.

Ms Elly Lee, 33, who works in a major hospital in Seoul, recounted a case last year involving a senior surgeon who tried twice to grope and kiss a nurse after he got drunk at a team dinner. When the nurse reported it to her boss, she was told not to blow up the matter. She resigned soon after, said Ms Lee.

"I feel so angry and upset every time I hear about these cases. It's because women have such a low status in our society," she said.

Prof Lee noted that the law can protect victims only if they are brave enough to come forward.

"Hopefully more changes can take place so more victims can be encouraged to speak up, and more criminals can be punished."