The Korea Herald


Workplace bullying gets smarter, crueler in South Korea

By 이다영

Published : Dec. 28, 2015 - 18:50

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The South Korean government has been striving to curb violence in various corners of society, including at schools, homes, workplaces and online. The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles delving into the reality and the country’s efforts to restrain the violence. This is the second installment. --Ed.

It wasn’t too hard for Yoon Eun-ji -- not her real name -- to find out that her senior colleague had been bullied by one of the executives of her company earlier this year. It wasn’t difficult because the board member made it very clear that she was not happy with her pregnant colleague.

“The executive humiliated her in front of everyone,” said the 29-year-old, who works for a local conglomerate. “She yelled at the pregnant woman. One of the things the executive said was that there was no reason for her to ‘suffer’ because of the colleague.”

Yoon later found out that the reason why the female executive, in her 50s, was upset was because she received a disciplinary measure from the human resources department for overworking the pregnant employee. Under Korea’s labor laws, it is illegal for employers to make pregnant workers do night shifts. 
Workplace bullying against women is often linked to pregnancies and maternity leaves in South Korea. (123RF) Workplace bullying against women is often linked to pregnancies and maternity leaves in South Korea. (123RF)

The pregnant worker, who had no choice but to stay late in the office to finish her assigned tasks -- the company does not allow employees to take their work home for security reasons -- never reported her boss to the authorities.

The human resources team found out through the company’s time-tracking system, which automatically calculates each worker’s time spent at work as they clock in and out.

“My senior colleague ended up taking her maternity leave earlier than scheduled, mostly because of the stress (due to her relationship with the executive),” Yoon said.

Alarming statistics

The case of Yoon’s colleague reflects South Korea’s workplace harassment that is getting more rampant, complex and cruel. According to a report submitted to the National Assembly by the Korea Women’s Development Institute earlier this year, 16.5 percent of 4,589 surveyed Korean workers said they have been harassed at the workplace at least once in their lives. The state-run think tank claimed that the rate is about 1.5 times higher than the world’s average proportion of victims, which is about 10 percent.

Some of the most high-profile workplace harassment cases in Korea include the “nut rage” incident, in which the former Korean Air vice president Cho Hyun-ah ordered a departing jet from New York to Seoul to return to the terminal gate at John F. Kennedy International Airport, after being dissatisfied with the way a flight attendant served her nuts on the plane last year.

“There are many factors behind Korea’s workplace bullying situation,” said Lee Myung-sun, head of the KWDI, in her open letter to the Assembly, stressing that women and contract workers are some of the most vulnerable to the violence.

“The (Korean) work culture that emphasizes competition and productivity, the increasing number of temporary and contract workers with limited job security, as well as the nation’s long work hours and hierarchal work relationships together contribute to this problem.”

Among the surveyed Koreans who said they had been harassed at work, 58.4 percent said they were purposely given too much work, while 48.5 percent said they were constantly monitored by their employer to a degree where they felt an invasion of their privacy.

Also, 44.1 percent said they have been purposely given work that was too easy as an insult, while 43.2 percent said they had been assigned to do a task that was either beyond their capabilities or control. Forty-one percent also said they had been either verbally insulted or humiliated at work. Meanwhile, 68.5 percent of the harassed participants said they were attacked by their bosses, while 32 percent said they had been harassed by their clients. Also, 31 percent said they were bullied by the executives of their companies.

Other research reports have shown that the situation may be more serious.

In a survey by the Korean Finance and Service Workers’ Union of its 3,065 members in June, 48.8 percent said they had been bullied at work.

A 2012 survey by Saramin, an online recruitment website, showed 45 percent of the 2,975 working Koreans who participated had a coworker who was bullied. Among them, 61.3 percent said the bullying problem was very serious, and 58.3 percent said they saw a colleague quit after being bullied.

Rep. Lee Jasmine of the ruling Saenuri Party said not many Koreans are aware that workplace harassment is a systemic problem.

“The ‘nut rage’ incident has brought the issue of workplace harassment into the limelight,” she said. “But many Koreans still consider it as personal conflicts with people at work, rather than as potential illegal activities or a systemic problem.”

Gender and job security

A number of studies have shown that women, young employees and contract workers are more vulnerable to workplace harassment than those with full-time positions and male employees in Korea.

A report by KWDI released last week, which surveyed 1,000 female workers in the nation’s service sector, showed that 45.9 percent of those working under a contract have experienced workplace harassment. Meanwhile, 29.2 percent of the workers who work full-time have endured the same. The report also showed that the younger workers were more vulnerable to workplace abuse. Among the surveyed, 46.3 percent of those in their 20s said they had been harassed at work, compared to 30.3 percent of those in their 40s and 36.5 percent of those in their 30s.

In a 2014 study by Seo Yoo-jeong from the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training, 85.7 percent of the victims who participated in her research said their perpetrators were men, while only 9.6 percent of them said they were attacked by women at work.

According to a 2011 research by local law firm Korean Public Interest Lawyers’ Group, which surveyed 1,633 women employees, 60.6 percent said they had been sexually harassed at work at least once in their lives.

Last year, four full-time workers at Seoul Grand Park, a park complex run by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, received disciplinary action after it was revealed that they had been sexually and verbally harassing a female contract worker who was hoping to get a full-time offer at the time.

The victim was junior to the four perpetrators -- three male and one female. Among the abuse she experienced included being forced to attend drinking gatherings and enduring unwanted touching and sexually explicit jokes. The victim, when reporting to the city government’s human rights office, said she did not resist in part as she was desperate to get a full-time position.

The KWDI report also mentioned a sexual harassment case at Renault Samsung Motors, where a female employee was sexually harassed by her male superior for over a year starting in 2012. The report claimed that the victim and those who supported her faced additional harassment at work after her boss received a disciplinary measure from the company following her report to the authorities.

According to the report, the human resources department spread false rumors about the victim, claiming she purposely seduced the perpetrator, a married man, first, and that sexual harassment in fact never happened, but she fabricated the facts to falsely report him.

The victim, whose work performance had been stellar prior to the case, received poor grades in her work evaluation after she reported her boss. She was also abruptly told not to pursue the projects that had been originally given to her prior to the case, and instead assigned to do errands such as purchasing office items. One of her coworkers, who openly supported her when the victim reported the perpetrator, was also demoted allegedly for no specific reason and received very poor work evaluation.

Workplace bullying against women is also often linked to pregnancies and maternity leaves. Last year, the Korean Health and Medical Workers’ Union revealed that among its 1,902 female members -- all nurses -- who are or have been pregnant, 17.4 percent have been encouraged by the employers to avoid pregnancy or get pregnant at a certain time so their maternity leaves do not coincide with their co-workers'. Also, 21.9 percent said they had to endure night shifts while pregnant, although the law prohibits it, and 18.7 percent experienced either miscarriages or stillbirths because of work-related stress and long work hours.  
According to a 2011 research by a local law firm, which surveyed 1,633 women employees, 60.6 percent said they had been sexually harassed at work at least once in their lives. (123RF) According to a 2011 research by a local law firm, which surveyed 1,633 women employees, 60.6 percent said they had been sexually harassed at work at least once in their lives. (123RF)

In 2012, a former bank employee won a suit filed against 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 the break, was asked to be an usher instead when she returned. Her desk was gone, and as an usher she had to stand the whole time. When she confronted her boss, he told her: “I no longer consider you as my employee. If you feel this is unfair, you should take the case to Cheong Wa Dae.”

The KWDI report showed that her boss told all of the employees to “cooperate” in isolating her in the office, so she would eventually give up and quit. The victim suffered depression because of the experience.

Labor issue

In October, representatives from labor, management and government reached an agreement that permitted employers to fire underperforming workers in exchange for hiring more full-time workers.

Meanwhile, a number of bills to tackle workplace bullying have been proposed since 2013, but are currently pending at the Assembly.

Lawyer Lee Jong-hee from the Korean Public Interest Lawyers’ Group, who also filed a report on the situation of workplace bullying to the Assembly, said limited job security resulting from being more vulnerable to getting fired may create more abuse cases at workplaces. “When you are on the verge of losing your job, you can’t report your boss for abuse,” the lawyer said in the report.

“Research has shown that women workers are more unstable in the labor market and the change may make them even more vulnerable to workplace bullying than before.”

Among the 360,000 who joined the temporary workforce in Korea over the past decade, 89 percent were women, according to the KWDI. Also, female temporary workers earned only 36 percent of full-time male workers’ average salary last year.

“(Korean) women are constantly exposed to sexist behavior when they are in the workforce,” Koo Mi-young from the KWDI. “For example, married women are still often expected to do housework even they are working, while their husbands are simply expected to ‘help out’ when they can, rather than fully share the responsibilities. Such experiences can make women unaware of the problems, and make them incapable to recognize even when they are harassed by someone else.”

Lawyer Lee said the laws should try to protect every worker’s dignity. “We need to talk about the system that makes it almost impossible for many workers to live with dignity,” the lawyer said in the report. “We need to talk about the system in order to tackle this issue (of workplace harassment).”

Last month, Rep. Lee In-young from the New Politics Alliance for Democracy proposed a bill that newly defines workplace harassment and therefore make them punishable by the laws.

It includes spreading malicious rumors and gossip that is not true; removing areas of responsibilities without reason for more than six months; insulting or criticizing a person persistently or constantly; assigning unreasonable or useless duties which are unfavorable to the person; and excluding or isolating someone socially at workplace. The bill also stipulated that in all lawsuits that involve workplace bullying, the accused must prove their innocence while the plaintiff does not have to prove the damages they suffered.

However, along with a number of other bills tackling the issue, Rep. Lee’s proposal is currently pending at the National Assembly.

According to a report by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training released in June, a single workplace bullying case can cost a company up to 15.5 million won ($13,300), as it negatively affects the workers’ productivity and mental health.

A number of countries, including Finland, Belgium and Canada, have legislations about workplace violence and harassment. In France, the Supreme Court held that it is an employer’s obligation to prevent workplace bullying and therefore renders them liable for bullying committed by their employees.

By Claire Lee (