|Yang Jin-ho, CEO of several IT companies, is taken to the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Station, Wednesday, after being detained on suspicion of assault on employees and drug use. / Korea Times photo by Im Myung-su|
By Lee Suh-yoon
The recent case of employee abuse by Yang Jin-ho, head of online data storage platforms, shocked the nation. However, statistics and reports show workplace violence by superiors, although not as serious as Yang's, is not rare in Korean companies.
Between January and August this year, the Ministry of Employment and Labor received 515 cases of violence by workplace superiors — usually executives or those in managerial positions — according to Rep. Lee Yong-deuk of the Democratic Party of Korea, Sunday.
CEOs committed or were involved in more than 60 percent of the cases.
Reports of workplace violence by superiors are increasing in number, with 393 in 2014, 391 in 2015, 538 in 2016 and 649 in 2017. Repeated media exposure and growing public anger have led to less tolerance for workplace abuse, one of the reasons for the growing number, the ministry says.
However, few of the offenders are punished — the prosecution has indicted only 51 of 515 people accused this year.
"In line with the purpose of the Labor Standards Act and to protect workers, employee abuse cases have to be thoroughly investigated and punished," Rep. Lee said.
Even if not involving physical violence, other forms of abuse and bullying by workplace superiors have been a pervasive problem.
Koreans have a special term for hierarchy-based bullying, "gapjil," which literally translates as "actions of the powerful." In this work culture, executives, usually company owners, often violently lash out at employees who do not cater to their slightest wishes, expecting to be treated as kings of their economic empires.
Yang's case is only the latest in a long history of Korean executives' gapjil scandals. Just a few months ago, Cho Hyun-min, a Korean Air heiress, was accused of throwing water at PR officials from a subcontracted firm. She was later cleared of the charges because the officials did not want her to be punished.
Her sister Cho Hyun-ah is also infamous for the "nut rage" incident, in which she delayed departure of a plane because she was dissatisfied with the way an attendant served a packet of nuts.
Such executives usually step down from management when the media exposes their abusive behavior. But despite these public examples, many workers still accept and tolerate the imperious abuse by their superiors as a part of the job.
The attitude is most apparent in the widely circulated video where Yang repeatedly strikes his ex-employee's face and no one steps in to stop the abuse. Everyone remains frozen in their seats as the forceful slaps and Yang's swearing echo throughout the office.
"No one tried to stop Chairman Yang. The then-CEO interfered a bit after the third slap and everyone else just carried on with their work," the victim later told a local broadcaster. "I think it was just the office atmosphere — no one could go against the chairman's word."