Explainer: What is South Korea's 'gapjil' culture of workplace harassment?


South Korea has long had a problem with toxic workplace culture.

Bad behaviour from the rich and powerful towards their employees has become so commonplace in South Korea that society coined a new word for it – ‘gapjil’. The word is a portmanteau for when people in power (gap), abuse those they employ (eul).

Let’s take a closer look at what it means, the laws to protect employees and recent surveys:

As per BBC, the term was spawned by the phenomenon of authoritative bosses routinely harassing lower rank-and-file subordinates.

As per Jezebel, South Korea, an institutionally stratified nation, has one of the longest workweeks of nations in power and sorts its people into classes.

When one’s social status is entirely dependent on a job title or income level, those in power are enabled to treat the classes sometimes literally beneath them like servants rather than dignified employees.

A few examples cited by The New York Times: the  10-year-old granddaughter of a tycoon threatening to fire her chauffeur for being “spoiled”; a boss making a corporate employee pick up their dog’s poop; the daughter of a former Korean Air chairman forcing a passenger jet to return to its gate at JFK.

Former South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who left office in May, had repeatedly promised to do something about gapjil, which he called a "leading workplace evil."

File image of South Korea's president Moon Jae-in. Reuters

The issue was spotlighted in 2019 Lee Myung-hee, matriarch of the Korean Air dynasty, was accused of physically and verbally abusing her staff, including by throwing metal shears at her gardener and forcing another staff member to kneel after forgetting to buy ginger, as per CNN.

Lee was given a suspended sentence in 2020, allowing her to avoid jail time if she can avoid committing other crimes for three years. The sentence was seen as a blow to labour rights activists, as per the report.

Backlash for bad behaviour

Thankfully, there has been a backlash.

Government agencies, the police, civic groups and corporations are offering “gapjil hotlines” letting citizens blow the whistle on bad bosses, as per The New York Times.

And it’s working. From politicos to corporate bigwigs, gapjil scandals have dented many a reputation, as per the report.

Case in point the wife of Lee Jae-myung, who was forced to bend the knee after being accused of treating government officials like personal servants while her husband was a provincial governor.

Lee ultimately lost his election.

On college campuses, students are hanging placards accusing “gapjil professors” of sexual harassment, as per The New York Times.

“South Koreans live with an enormous tolerance for abuse, but when they can’t take it anymore and explode, they call it gapjil,” said Park Chang-jin, a former Korean Air flight attendant who campaigns against gapjil as a leader of the small Opposition Justice Party told the newspaper.

‘Faced workplace harassment’

As per CNN, Nearly 30 per cent of Korean office workers reported facing some form of workplace harassment over the past year in an online, nationwide survey of 1,000 respondents.

That figure was up from 23.5 per cent in March.

The survey conducted by research group Embrain Public and commissioned by Workplace Gapjil 119, an organisation that assists victims of office abuse, showed respondents faced sexual harassment from superiors as well as verbal and physical abuse.

Representational image

One employee said they felt threatened when their supervisor swore at them angrily, while another described receiving late night text messages from her boss containing abusive and sexual language after he had been out drinking. Others faced exclusion from office groups and been insulted by superiors in front of peers.

In May, Gapjil 119 announced that its analysis of 205 reports it received from abuse victims between January 2021 and March 2022 showed that more than eight out of 10 people who reported sexual harassment at the workplace said they suffered from some form of retaliation.

About 100 of the reports were from those who had filed complaints about sexual harassment to either their employer or other institutions.

About 90 per cent of them said they did not receive due protection after speaking out about sexual harassment, and 83 percent said they experienced retaliation, the group said.'

About 64 per cent of the victims identified their supervisors as harassers, while 30 percent of the cases involved their employers, according to the group's survey, which allowed multiple responses.

The study showed 79 per cent of sexual harassment victims were also bullied at the workplace.

Verbal sexual harassment was the most common type of offence, experienced by 76.1 per cent of the victims. It was followed by physical sexual harassment at 43.4 percent and visual sexual harassment at 6.3 per cent.

Gapjil 119 also pointed out still prevalent gender discrimination in hiring, wage and promotion.

A total of 542 complaints about gender discrimination in employment were filed with the labour ministry between January 2021 and March 2022, but there were no cases in which the ministry conducted labour supervision at the workplace, the group said, citing government data provided by an Opposition lawmaker.

Laws to tackle harassment

In May, a revised law took effect with enhanced measures against workplace gender discrimination and sexual misconduct.

Under the amendment, employees can report such incidents to the Regional Labour Relations Commission. The government agency can order corrective measures after deliberation, and employers who fail to comply without proper reasons can be fined up to 100 million won.

Korea in 2019 passed a law dictating that bosses who unfairly fire workers for complaining about bullying face up to three years in prison or a 30 million won ($25,464) fine, as per CNN.

With inputs from agencies


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Explainer: What is South Korea's 'gapjil' culture of workplace harassment?
Explainer: What is South Korea's 'gapjil' culture of workplace harassment?
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