SOUTH KOREA: Sexual harassment in the workplace is organised violence

In a meeting held on February 4, organised by the Korean Women’s Development Institute where around 500 so-called women ‘leaders’ participated, President Park Geun-hye delivered a speech that her administration will strive for the keeping of good maintenance of systems so that women of capacity will not be barred from achieving their dreams. President Park further promised to create various programmes that explore women’s capability which will contribute to the society. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family sponsored the meeting.

The top official’s strong affirmation of a national policy on women was welcome and her promise was appreciated by those ‘leaders’ at the meeting. Obviously, such speech means hardly anything to women who are not leaders but who have been discriminated against in ordinary workplaces. For them, it is only an assembly of words. Ironically, one day after the delivery of the speech, a group of civil society organisations in support of the victim of sexual harassment in workplaces held a press conference and released how they have been discriminated against for seeking justice in their workplace.

According to their testimony a woman employee, a decade long work experience at Renault Samsung Motors Co. who was assigned to a research team in January 2012 had been sexually harassed for about a year by her superior who joined as a team leader in March 2012. The team leader has the power of evaluation of merits on the staff in the team. Due to unbearable suffering, she decided to resign and informed the situation to the company in March 2013 but was encouraged by an executive not to resign. Soon after, however, the executive advised her to resign. Two months of international investigation concluded that the team leader received two weeks of suspension of work and was discharged from his position on ground of sexual harassment on 13 May 2013. Meanwhile, a sudden rumour roamed around in the company that she seduced the team leader. 

The victim filed a civil suit against CEO of the company. In June 2013, human resource team of the company warned Ms. Jeong, whose name was found as one of witnesses in the law suit filed by the victim, not to associate with the victim. Since Ms. Jeong refused, the company made punitive disciplinary action for negligence in July. The company also took disciplinary action against the victim on the ground of obtaining testimonies from her colleagues. It is reported that the process of the internal investigation was unfair. The Gyeonggi National Labor Relations Commission ruled on December 4 that the disciplinary actions against the victim and Ms. Jeong were unfair. Nonetheless, the company suspended Ms. Jeong and the victim from work on December 6 and 11 respectively. It also filed a criminal suit against them on charge of theft (removing classified documents) in revenge.

Disconnected from the speech and promises made at the ‘leaders’ meeting, the type of routine and ordinary case of sexual harassment in a workplace appears not a matter of concern for them. Not only by superiors in a company, but also by prosecutors against female journalists is it a routine form of practice of sexual harassment, followed by very lenient disciplinary action. The Korea Women link, a non-governmental organisation released a report in 2013 saying that more than half of the counselling cases (56.35% ) were related to sexual harassment issues within the company (which has increased by 12% compared to the year before). In particular, cases that were reported as a disadvantage action were 79 incidents and this contributes to 35.59% of the counselling cases. It is believed that actual unreported or undocumented number of case is still at large.

National policies always matter either to promote or demote protection of rights of women in particular as to the violence against women. It is indeed welcoming remarks that the administration is planning to develop various programme for women’s economic participation. However, as the case of Renault Samsung Motors Co. indicates, if the victim of sexual harassment is instead discriminated for seeking justice in a workplace and an organisation of profit or non-profit encourages others to discriminate against the victim, it is nothing but a place of organised violence that the victims will suffer. Without this practice being changed, President Park’s words retain just an assembly to ordinary women in the workplaces and it will only gear to corner them to a place of organised violence requiring their obedient submission to sexual harassment in return.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-029-2014
Countries : South Korea,
Issues : Administration of justice, Right to life, Violence against women, Women's rights,