Vector illustration aa Pressure. Image: iStock
Vector illustration aa Pressure. Image: iStock

There is a craze in South Korea surrounding Pengsoo, a 10-year-old genderless penguin character on the Korea Educational Broadcasting System (EBS). Young adults particularly love Pengsoo, saying the character’s behavior soothes many people who are emotionally hurt after being mistreated at work by their bosses or managers.

Pengsoo calls the owner of EBS, Kim Myung-joong, names, a behavior that can be seen as rude in Korea. Pengsoo never kowtows to Kim. Such behavior is unimaginable in hierarchical Korean society, where workplace bullying, mostly perpetrated by workers who have higher positions than their victims, has become a serious issue. Many people are subjected to workplace bullying, and South Korean media occasionally report on the issue.

One of the most recent instances reported on mainstream media was a case of verbal abuse at Ajou University Medical Center in Suwon, capital of Gyeonggi-do, the province that surrounds Seoul. Reportedly Lee Guk-jong, a prominent surgeon, was subjected to verbal abuse by the director of the hospital, Yoo Hee-suk. When the case was reported, many Koreans condemned Yoo, saying that he was the perpetrator of workplace bullying. But in fact this was not an isolated incident: workplace bullying is still pervasive in Korea, even though the Labor Standards Act now bans it.

In July last year, South Korea introduced regulations to ban workplace bullying by revising the Labor Standards Act. As workplace bullying has become one of the biggest social ills in the country, the government decided to tackle it. But six months after the introduction of the anti-bullying law, there are no signs of an end to the problem. Some say that loopholes in the Labor Standards Act are to blame.

Article 76 of the act stipulates that workers who have been subjected to workplace bullying or notice others being victimized by it must report the case to their employer. The employer then must promptly investigate the reported case, punishing the perpetrators and protecting the victims. But this provision in the law has some loopholes, many workers argue.

First, many have complained that they have difficulty reporting cases of workplace bullying  perpetrated by their employer or his or her relatives. As cronyism is deeply entrenched across Korean society, many employers are likely to turn a blind eye to bullying perpetrated by their family members. Above all, as workers can report bullying only to their employer, many victims are reluctant to do so, worrying that the perpetrators will not be punished.

Second, the Labor Standards Act doesn’t have any rule about employers who mistreat workers for reporting bullying. This potentially makes workers reluctant to report such cases.

Third, as stated in Article 11 of the Labor Standards Act, the act applies only to companies with at least five employees. Though a Presidential Decree states that some provisions of the act can be also applied to smaller companies, the decree doesn’t specify any rule about workplace bullying.

The South Korean government decided to ban workplace bullying as part of protecting workers’ rights. But the revised Labor Standards Act is failing to root out workplace bullying, and the government should revisit this issue and tighten the law further.

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