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(News Focus) 1 year after workplace anti-bullying law takes effect, challenges remain

National 09:00 July 15, 2020

By Lee Minji

SEOUL, July 15 (Yonhap) -- Can workplace bullies be punished?

It's a tricky question in South Korea.

A revised labor law aimed at preventing workplace bullying went into effect here on July 16 last year. But the law came with a handful of prerequisites.

For one, it defines workplace harassment as "an act of incurring physical or mental suffering or a worsening of the work environment by employers or workers using their status or power to behave beyond the scope of working norms," which many found to be too vague to enforce.

The law indicates that victims can report the case to their workplace -- not the labor ministry -- which is then mandated to launch an immediate probe into it.

The employer should take follow-up measures -- such as changing workplace location or giving paid leave -- and take punitive action against the bully when allegations are confirmed.

Employers can face up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won (US$24,863), if an employee is given any disadvantage -- including getting fired -- for reporting a case.

An illustration depicting workplace bullying (Yonhap)

The legislation was seen as marking a step forward in a country where workplace bullying frequently makes headlines.

Among some drastic cases were Seo Ji-yoon, a nurse who took her own life after allegedly suffering bullying from her peers at a public general hospital. On the other end of the spectrum, there was Yang Jin-ho, the head of a software firm, who cruelly killed a chicken at a company workshop and fired airsoft guns at employees.

But microaggressions are much more common.

A 2017 survey by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) showed that 73 percent of workers have suffered workplace bullying. It also showed that some 60 percent didn't take any action on concerns it would affect their work life.

This file photo, taken July 16, 2019, shows a sign for a consulting center for workplace bullies set up at a local labor ministry branch in Suwon, south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

Then how much has changed after the symbolic legislation has gone into effect?

Labor ministry data showed that it received 3,347 complaints on workplace bullying between July 16 and March 31, with roughly half of them involving verbal abuse.

The ministry settled 2,739 cases, including 1,312 that were withdrawn. Less than 1 percent were transferred to the prosecution for criminal punishment.

While workers tend to feel safer following the legislation, data showed that it was not enough to assure victims to report the case.

A report by Gabjil 119, an advocacy group for workplace bullying victims, showed that 53.5 percent of the respondents felt that such violence has subsided following the legislation. "Gabjil" is a local term that widely refers to cases involving power-based bullying.

At the same time, only 3 percent of around 45 percent who reported bullying said they reported the case to their employer or the labor ministry.

Most of the respondents who didn't make a case said they felt things wouldn't change or were afraid of malicious countermeasures.

"The law is meaningful in a sense that it can provide a roof to escape the rain. But that house needs to be better furnished and equipped to truly protect workers," Park Jum-kyu, a committee member at Gabjil 119, told Yonhap News Agency.

Civic groups and organizations call for stronger measures to make the anti-bullying law more effective.

They point out how the current law puts more emphasis on building an anti-bullying work culture rather than taking punitive action against the perpetrators.

The current anti-bullying law, for example, only indicates how workplaces may face punishment, not how the bullies will actually be punished.

They also call for stronger measures at workplaces and an update in the law on expanding the scope of "bullies" to protect workers who are outsourced or temporarily hired.

Last week, the NHRC advised the labor ministry to include others outside of workplaces as "bullies," expand preventive education at workplaces with four or less people and adopt punitive measures for the bullies in addition to the preventive measures.

It cited how the International Labor Organization's "Violence and Harassment Convention" indicates that "an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach" should also include those involving "third parties."

This would help prevent harassment from family members and friends of a company's chief who wield power while being "outsiders" or those coming from "non-employers," such as verbal or physical abuse against concierges or cashiers by mean customers or residents.

But in the longer term, a change in work culture is critical to do away with workplace bullies, they said.

"Not everything can be recognized as workplace bullying and not every case can be resolved through law," said Park, mentioning how the legal process typically requires accurate and detailed evidence of bullying.

"It's a matter of changing a deep-rooted, top-down culture that has shaped itself over decades into one that respects workers. It will take time."


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