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Revised labor law to combat office bullies

July 17,2019
It has been two months since Kim quit her job, but the memories are still so vivid that she continues to take therapy.

It started when her former boss asked her out one day. When Kim replied she had a boyfriend, the senior gave up - only to bully her in the office in an attempt to redeem his pride.

He gave her piles of work right before 6 p.m. on Fridays and told her to get it done by Monday, she recalled. When Kim made mistakes at work, her boss would say out loud, in front of her coworkers, “Are you this clumsy in the office because you’re busy dating?”

But now, Kim’s former company will be required to take disciplinary action against workers like Kim’s boss under the revised Labor Standards Act, which went into effect Tuesday and specifically bans bullying in the workplace.

Physical violence and sexual harassment have been both punishable in Korea’s legal system way before the Labor Standards Act was amended, but there had never been a law intended to clamp down on office bullying altogether.

The government, which officially proclaimed last January that the revision would go into effect this week, hopes to spread a new work culture in Korea after a string of cases involving abuse of power grabbed news headlines last year. This prompted the public to urge authorities to take measures to stop the abuse.

Under the revised Labor Standards Act, when an alleged victim reports to their company that they have been bullied at work, the company has to verify the claims and decide whether or not bullying actually took place.

If bullying did occur, the company is required to take disciplinary action against the perpetrator, such as physically changing that person’s work location to keep a distance from the victim.

In this process, if the company levies some kind of “disadvantage” to the victim, such as firing her, the company or person in charge of that unfair act can be punished with up to three years in prison or receive a fine of up to 30 million won ($25,450), the law stipulates.

If the alleged perpetrator is the company’s CEO, the company has to report the case to the board of directors.

For a case to be defined as “bullying,” the following three points must all be met: The perpetrator must be of a superior position than the victim in terms of rank or “relationship;” the perpetrator must have caused physical or mental pain to the victim or deteriorated their work environment; and that pain must have been induced by an action committed by the perpetrator that went “beyond the bounds of what is considered appropriate for work.”

A person can still be considered a bully even if they are of a lower rank than the victim but has some other advantage, or “relationship,” that makes them relatively superior, such as being a fulltime worker as opposed to a contract worker.

But some lawyers and legal experts point out that the revised labor law will not be able to dramatically change Korea’s work culture because companies cannot be penalized for ignoring cases of bullying under the act.

Company officials can only be fined or jailed for actively disadvantaging the victim after the victim’s case has been reported to the company, not for simply turning a blind eye to the situation.

Major conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai, SK and CJ groups have recently revised their employment contracts to outright ban workplace bullying. A spokesperson for LG Chem, the chemical branch of LG Group, said the entire staff was planning to take an online course about workplace bullying from Thursday.

From today, a so-called bullying report center will open on the company’s intranet, the LG Chem source continued, through which victims of bullying can inform the company about their struggles.

Despite doubts about the revision leading to any drastic changes, others say a little change is better than none.

“My boss has changed his attitude a lot after hearing about the amended law,” said a worker at a local conglomerate who asked to speak on the condition of anonymity. “I don’t know how long it will last, but I think a lot of my senior colleagues are undergoing some sort of self-censorship these days.”

Another worker at a different company said he is already feeling the positive effects as well.

“My bosses are really grumpy about the amendment, but I think they’ve come to realize it’s not okay to insult their juniors,” he said.

BY LEE HOO-YEON, CHOI SUN-WOOK [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]