South Korea introduces legislation to deter workplace bullying

Employers can now face jail time for penalising victims who speak out.

South Korea has introduced legislation to deter workplace bullying. The combination of intense competition for jobs and with the prevalence of family-run conglomerates (known as ‘chaebols’) has created a rife culture of workplace harassment. The abusive behaviour is so commonplace that here is a word for it, “gabjil.” 

Labour rights group Workplace Gabjil 119 and other non-profit organisations have listed examples of harassment, which include staff being ordered to write essays for their manager’s children, perform “sexy dances” for executives or even pluck out their boss’s grey hairs.

This article in the Philadelphia tribune lists examples of physical and verbal abuse allegedly committed by, Lee Myung-hee, matriarch of the Korean Air dynasty, against her staff.

“Forced to kneel and assaulted for forgetting to buy ginger. Kicked and spat on for being late. Drenched with water for driving too slowly. Struck on the forehead with a mop handle for seemingly no reason,” it reads. 

Reports on harassment led to the eventual publication of a 2018 report by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, which revealed that approximately 70 percent of all Korean employees have been bullied by their work superiors and colleagues at least once in their lives. Furthermore, about 60 percent of these victims said they never took any action, fearing possible disadvantages. And some 12 percent of all Korean workers are thought to be facing harassment at work every day

As a result, Korean lawmakers passed the amendment to the Labor Standards Act (the “LSA”) in late 2018. The amendment to the LSA was promulgated on January 15, 2019, and came into effect on July 16.

Among other things, the amendment now prohibits employers from taking any measures - including dismissal - against a victim or employee who has reported workplace bullying and could face up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won (around R400 000).

Instead of punishing a complainant, the employer is now required to conduct an investigation upon receiving a complaint, or is otherwise made of aware of workplace harassment. And, during the investigation process, employer must take appropriate measures to protect the victim-employee from (further) harassment. 

While the new law in South Korea does not directly criminalise the bullies, only employers who penalise victims for speaking out, activists believe it’s still a meaningful step towards change, as more will feel relatively safer to report when they face harassment at work.