In 2012, a former bank employee won damages from her employer and coworkers, who bullied her after returning from a year of maternity leave. The banker, who had been in charge of accounts and mostly worked as a teller before taking leave, was asked to be an usher instead when she returned. Her own desk was gone, and as an usher she had to stand the whole time. When she confronted her boss after waiting for a month, he told her: “I don’t consider you as my employee. If you feel this is unfair, you should talk to Cheong Wa Dae.”
The worker soon descended into depression, and was eventually hospitalized. She was fired as she did not return to work ― the victim claimed she was still too sick to work ― even after her sick leave allowance had run out. The court ruled her employer pay 20 million won ($18,272) in compensation for her emotional and career damage.
Workplace bullying in South Korea is quite serious, and women workers are especially vulnerable due to poor work-life balance as well as the glass ceiling, according to a study by the Korean Women’s Development Institute. About 62.3 percent of all Korean workers have been bullied at least once at the workplace as of 2008, while 45 percent said they have witnessed workplace bullying as of 2012.
Among the witnesses, 61.3 percent said the bullying they had seen was “very serious.” Also, 58.3 percent said they have had a coworker who left work after being bullied by their bosses or colleagues.
Experts said female workers, especially those in contract positions, were more vulnerable to workplace bullying and sexual harassment than their male counterparts. Among the 360,000 who joined the temporary workforce over the past decade, 89 percent were women. According to the Korea Labor and Society Institute, female temporary workers earned only 36 percent of full-time male workers’ average salary last year.
Last year, a female contract worker at an amusement park in Seoul filed a complaint to the human rights authorities at the city government, claiming she and her female colleagues were bullied by those in full-time managerial positions. The workers were all in temporary positions and were hoping to get full-time positions by the end of their contract.
Their managers often threatened them by saying “not everyone can become full-time workers and you never know what would happen to you” whenever the women did not obey their requests.
The managers also reportedly forced them to attend drinking sessions, where they were often sexually harassed while asked to pour drinks for their superiors. The bullies were mostly men, but a female manager also reportedly sexually harassed contract female workers. After organizing an independent investigation, the Seoul Metropolitan Government concluded that the worker’s claims were true. The managers eventually faced disciplinary action.
“There is still little public awareness on what workplace bullying is and why it is a violation of human rights,” said researcher Koo Mi-young at the Korean Women’s Development Institute. “And since women are more vulnerable to this particular type of abuse, there should be more gender-based discussion about workplace bullying, sexual harassment, as well as discrimination.”
Overseas studies have long shown that workplace bullying can lead to a number of health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder and even suicide. Also, coworkers who witness workplace bullying can also have negative effects, such as severe stress, fear and emotional exhaustion, according to a study by the National Communication Association in the U.S.
A bill to deal with workplace bullying was proposed in 2013 in Korea, but is currently pending in the National Assembly.
By Claire Lee (email@example.com