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Employees reveal rampant workplace abuse

Nov 15,2018
The recent headline-grabbing abuses by a file-sharing website executive against his workers sparked an outpouring of workplace harassment allegations across many industries in Korea.

Many claim insults and physical abuse from superiors are prevalent in their workplaces.

Koreans commonly refer to such harassment by superiors as gapjil, or abuse of power, which pervades the country’s hierarchical workplace culture. Many superiors expect employees to cater to their every whim, as was seen in the notorious “nut rage” incident, when a Korean Air heiress threw a tantrum about how she was served nuts on a flight.

The most recent example of the case involved Yang Jin-ho, the owner of multiple file sharing websites linked to porn distribution. Yang is currently detained on multiple charges. Footage surfaced of him beating a former employee, hurling insults at him and forcing employees to torture chickens.

The only silver lining with Yang’s case, if there is any, is that it has encouraged many employees across Korea to speak out publically against workplace harassment instead of hiding and enduring like before.

Such abuses by executives like Yang are commonplace and widespread, workers in several different industries told the JoongAng Ilbo, and come in a variety of different forms.

Lee Hyo-won, 34, recently fulfilled her dream of becoming a manager at a luxury store in a major shopping mall. But the job didn’t meet her rosy expectations. Lee says her boss habitually insulted her and attacked her character at work. On Mondays, he would make her come to his house to do his laundry and wash dishes, and on the weekends she had to feed and walk his dog.

According to the litany of testimonies that emerged from former workers at Yang’s companies, the executive reigned like a dictator over the office and treated workers like his servants. Physical assaults, insults and threats were commonplace, and Yang sometimes even spit or threw water at employees. But there was little workers could do.

“Given that everyone knew Yang had a mercurial personality and short temper, employees would not even think about complaining,” one former employee at Wedisk, one of Yang’s file sharing companies, told the JoongAng Ilbo. “People believed that resistance would cause a larger problem.”

Many employees at small or medium-sized companies say they face similar situations and have little to no recourse. These companies often lack internal audit departments or ways for employees to bring up abuses. Because founders and owners often have total control over smaller enterprises, such issues are largely hushed up.

Complicating matters even further is the fact that victims of workplace abuse often become perpetrators themselves due to the hierarchical nature of most industries. When an executive berates a mid-level manager, this manager will often vent his frustration on the workers under him. Analysts say nobody is free from abuse within this top-down structure.

According to a survey of 2,500 employees conducted by the Korea Labor Institute released last month, six out of every 10 workers say they have been victims of workplace abuse, while eight out of 10 say they have witnessed such actions firsthand. Around 27 percent of the respondents said they themselves have abused underlings.

The most common abuses included psychological attacks like insults (24.7 percent), overloading employees with too many tasks (20.8 percent), and shunning (16.1 percent).

The numbers were even grimmer in last February’s National Human Rights Commission of Korea report. Over 73.4 percent said they experienced abuse by a superior within the last year, while 12 percent said harassment was an everyday affair.

Stories of rampant gapjil in the IT industry are widespread.

Former IT employee Kim Hyeon-woo said he was inspired by Jony Ive, the industrial designer who transformed many of Steve Jobs’ ideas into reality at Apple, to work in the tech sector. In 2014, he found a job at a start-up whose founder he had looked up to.

But Kim’s boss would constantly slap and beat him for every little mistake, and once smashed his face until he bled from his lips. Kim said he also witnessed his boss beating a coworker with a golf club because the employee wore a shirt with the wrong color to work. The executive would justify the violence by saying he was teaching them how to work, Kim said.

Testimonies about similar cases involving executives like Yang Jin-ho poured out during a seminar on workplace abuse in the tech sector hosted by Democratic Party lawmaker Rhee Cheol-hee on Wednesday. Sexual harassment is also common at these companies, Kim Hwan-min, a tech sector union leader, said at the seminar. At one company in the Gasan Digital Complex, an executive allegedly grabbed the genitals of male employees and kissed female workers.

The older sister of one victim of abuse, surnamed Chang, testified that her younger sister had been forced to work overtime without pay for 11 months of the three years she had worked at a company. Chang said her sister eventually killed herself last January because of the stress.

Rep. Rhee said that these cases were only the tip of the iceberg in the industry. Around 23.3 percent of IT workers were verbally abused by superiors, while another 20.3 percent had been threatened or forced to behave shamefully, he said, citing a recent survey of tech industry workers. Over half said they thought about suicide in the last year.

BY JEONG JIN-WOO, YOON SUNG-MIN and SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]