What would it feel like for an employee to be forced to pluck out the boss’s gray hair on the first day at work? According to an organization named Workplace gapgil 119, this is an actual situation that happened in workplaces. There has been a plethora of controversies regarding bullying in workplaces in Korea. With the voice of complaints, the government made the “workplace anti-bullying law” to eradicate bullying within workplaces. However, there are some concerns regarding the effectiveness of this law, and there should be more systematic legal supports and complements to minimize the limitations.
Bullying in the workplace is a serious social issue in Korea and there is even a term, Gapjil, referring to bullying specifically in workplaces. Gap means someone who is in a superior position in a relationship, and jil is a suffix adding the meaning of “doing some things a lot.” According to the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, 70 percent of office workers answered that they have experienced Gapjil in the workplace. Along with the policy object to eradicate Gapjil , the “workplace anti-bullying law” has been implemented since July 16. If unfair orders or insults from superiors are reported, the company should take disciplinary measures to the perpetrator and accept the request of victims including the change of workplace and paid leave of absence.
Bullying or Encouragement?
On February 21, the Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL) posted a manual for determining an incident as a bullying and preventing bullying in workplaces. The manual explains three criterias to determine an incident as bullying — whether a person takes advantage of the superiority of relationship or status, whether the bullying goes over the proper scope of work, and whether it causes physical or mental pain that aggravates the work environment. However, some point out that the standards are too vague to make it clear for people to determine each case of bullying.
As a response, the Korea Employers’ Federation (KEF) presented judgment factors to distinguish bullying and promoting actions for the purpose of improving job performance. According to the standards, public criticism and censure unrelated to improvement in performance is bullying, whereas giving low performers an opportunity for proper education and giving sufficient time to make progress are justified acts of encouragement.
KEF drew a line of encouragement for the improvement in performances that are not bullying, and civil society organizations point out that according to their standards, there would be almost no bullying in workplaces. As such, different interpretations are pointed out as one of the limitations of this law. Since the concept of bullying is inevitably vague itself, there should be efforts to reach towards more detailed standards.
Poison of Autonomy
According to MOEL, since the intent of the revised Labor Standards Act is in need for autonomous responses of each company, there are no direct criminal punishments, even when the employers do not take serious actions to the perpetrators. This leads to the concern that the law would end up at a declarative level, not a forceful one.
Despite voices claiming that there should be ways to give criminal punishments, experts worry about the power of criminal punishments. Professor Shin Kwon-chul (University of Seoul Law School) stated, “A variety of bullying situations would result in the malfunction or excessive power of the punishment system.” He further specified that “If every word starts to be regarded as possible subjects to criminal punishments, cooperation and solidarity within the community would be impossible.” If criminal punishments can lead to more confusion, specific sanctions, if not criminal punishments, should be made to make the law more forceful.
A Tree without Fruits?
Another problem is in the main agent of bullying. Since the employer is responsible for the receipt and examination of reports, there are evident limits in the investigation and punishment processes in which the employer is the perpetrator. In such cases, systems to minimize the employers’ influences would be helpful. One way to increase the neutrality of investigation and judgment is, as Professor Shin explains, “consigning the whole process of report receipt, screening and actions to independent organizations outside of the company, such as law and labor firms, mediation agencies, and social organizations of labor.”
▲ Professor Shin Kwon-chul. Provided by Shin Kwon-chul.
Another limitation of the law is found in the scope of objects for protection. Since the law only applies to companies with more than five employees, companies with fewer than five employees cannot be protected through the law. There are voices of discontent from employees in small businesses. Professor Shin stated, “In order to apply the antibullying regulations to workplaces with fewer than five employees, Appendix one of the Labor Standards Act Enforcement Decree, which is a presidential decree, should be revised according to article 11, paragraph 2 of the Labor Standards Act. This article allows the application of some of the articles to companies with fewer than five employees as provided by the presidential decree.”
Steps Toward Peace
The drawbacks of the law should gradually be complemented and amended, as most laws are. Other than modifying the law, educational efforts to change people’s perception and awareness are essential. For instance, in the case of the Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO), the chief executive officer (CEO) makes an annual video about ethical management. Furthermore, every year, former employees read online ethical standards that contain the content of making efforts to eradicate actions hindering human dignity — and make commitments by writing down their names. These preventions set an autonomous reaction of bullying problems, and further surveys to check problems at work should be made in the meantime.
The anti-bullying law in the workplace, despite worries about it still has significance in that it would act as a deterrent. Professor Shin mentioned, “The biggest significance of this law is that it makes both words and actions at work filtered under the name of bullying.” With efforts to listen to people’s voices and to reflect the concerns by laws, the current law would gradually hold its place as a strong tool for preventing evils in workplaces. The combination of legal and educational supports would lead towards a fruitful and happier journey.