THE SILENCE in the office is shattered as a man brutally smacks an employee across his face. The violence continues as the perpetrator Yang Jin-ho, who was then CEO of the online storage service provider, WeDisk, forces the employee to kneel down and beg for an apology as he continues to hurl ruthless violence.
This is an example of workplace harassment in South Korea where employees often experience various forms of abuse, ranging from physical to verbal, typically from someone of higher authority. To tackle such phenomenon, a law enforcing a ban on harassment in the workplace has officially taken effect on July 16, 2019, giving a flicker of hope for a decline in incidences of workplace harassment. With the law striving to initiate a transformation in South Korean work society, questions pertaining to the actual effectiveness of the enforcement remain at large—will it really be capable of keeping the workplaces safe?
Working in Korea
In South Korea, a nation notorious for its rigidity in corporate hierarchy, workplace “etiquettes” like arriving at the office before the boss does are considered the norm. Individuals place the greatest focus on job titles as they reflect the person’s rank and social status in the workplace and society in general. While there have been past instances where companies attempted to drop the use of job titles, they were met with difficulties as most Korean companies predominantly run on a top-down system. The toxic hierarchal work culture in South Korea greatly attributes to the rise of gap-jil, a Korean word referring to the authoritarian attitude or action of an individual who has a superior position over others*. Employers are often criticized for engaging in gap-jil, some of which include forcing employees to work overtime, committing physical and verbal abuses, as well as sexual harassments—all falling under examples of workplace harassment.
Implementation of the workplace anti-harassment law
According to The Korea Herald, 70% of all South Korean employees have past experiences of receiving unfair treatments from either their supervisors or colleagues at least once in their work lives. Harassment in the office has been existent for many years, but the event that brought workplace harassment to the center of social controversy was most likely the infamous “nut rage incident” of 2014. Dissatisfied with the way nuts were served to first-class passengers including herself, Cho Hyun-ah, heiress to the Korean Air airline, assaulted the cabin crew Chief Park Chang-jin, forcing him to kneel down and beg for forgiveness. She further commanded that the aircraft return to the terminal so that Park could get off.
To prevent further recurrences, The Ministry of Employment and Labor proclaimed the revised Labor Standards Act earlier this year in January, which officially took effect from July 16, 2019. According to Attorney Lee Se-ry from Kim & Chang law firm in an interview with The Yonsei Annals, the revised law has three major articles: definition and prohibition of workplace harassment, measures to be taken if workplace harassment occurs, and addition of employment rules regarding workplace harassment. The revised law defines workplace harassment as an act by an employer or an employee inflicting physical or mental suffering on another which goes beyond the appropriate scope of work. Additionally, actions degrading the work environment by taking advantage of one’s position and status would also fall under the category of workplace harassment**. Examples of such include pressuring subordinates to participate in hwe-shik*** and forcing employees to drink beyond their limits. The law is influencing an extensive transition among South Korean companies. According to Pulse, companies with more than ten employees are required to specify the revised anti-harassment rules in their employment guidelines.
Is the law effective?
While the new law generally received positive feedback, doubts arise as the law lacks clear criteria and poses ambiguous boundaries defining harassment. Concerns involving subjectivity remain as the interpretation of the severity of physical or mental sufferings varies for individuals. Furthermore, though the new law forbids employees to be given workloads beyond acceptable limits, there is difficulty in objectively evaluating whether one’s workload is indeed violating the law. “Workplace harassment is defined by three fundamental notions: unfair superiority over others, overburdening workload, as well as the physical and mental strains on the victim,” says Lee. “It is speculated that the biggest issue with the law would be determining whether a certain workload exceeds the standard of adequacy, and accurately measuring the level of distress caused, both of which are very subjective.”
Adding on, while the law defined and specified ways to report workplace harassments, the law has failed to provide a definite outline of the penalties once such violations are committed. Although the revision mentioned the sanctions imposed upon the retaliatory or discriminatory measures taken against victims—up to three years in prison or a ₩30 million fine, the law fails to mention specific penalties imposed on the perpetrators of each particular workplace harassment****.
However, despite the skepticism, its establishment in the South Korean legislation carries great meaning. “With the law now being implemented at full-scale, there has been an increase in society’s interest towards it. People are now able to consider workplace harassment as a serious issue that should be dealt with through legal means,” states Lee. With the law in its infancy, Lee placed focus on the state-led initiatives towards increasing the awareness on workplace harassment and the prevention of such incidents. “Regardless of the complications of sanctions or the difficulty of issuing legal penalties under the violation of the law, I believe that the law will have a very positive effect in the long-run,” concluded Lee.
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The recent amendment and implementation of the workplace anti-harassment law is a starting point of a transition from the deep-rooted and rigid hierarchy system in Korean society. Rather than portraying the new law under negative light, it is important to understand that the law aims to tackle stressful working conditions that have impeded the growth of healthy work environments in South Korea. Implementing the new law is merely a first step towards a transformed society; without the cooperation as well as support of the public, the exposure of South Korean workers to workplace harassment will be sustained, firmly remaining as an indestructible wall.
*The Korea Times
**The Korea Times
***Hwe-shik: Staff dinners that usually involves drinks
****The Korea Herald