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Toxic employers face jail as country tackles workplace bullying

After enduring months of constant harassment at work, South Korean office worker Christine Jung finally confronted her aggressor — only to be fired and sued for defamation by her employer.

Her situation is not unusual in South Korea, where employees have traditionally been expected to turn a blind eye to abusive behaviour by those in power — a phenomenon so commonplace that locals have coined a word for it, “gabjil”. But that could soon change thanks to a revised labour law.

The new legislation that comes into effect on Tuesday will criminalise business owners who unfairly dismiss employees harassed at work.

A recent government survey found that two-thirds of workers had experienced harassment on the job, while 80 percent had witnessed it.

In one of the most high-profile cases, an heiress to the Korean Air fortune threw a temper tantrum at cabin crew after being served nuts in a bag instead of a bowl in 2014 — earning instant “nut rage” notoriety.

Rigid company hierarchies, intense competition for jobs and deference to status all contribute to toxic work environments in an economy dominated by family-run conglomerates.

In Jung’s case, her harasser was the CEO’s father.

“He once told me the building was shaking whenever I walked — because I was ‘too fat’. Another time he tried to follow me to the women’s bathroom. And another time he abruptly groped my stomach in his office,” the 37-year-old told AFP.

“But when I brought up the issue, the management accused me of being a man-hater and a liar.”

Jung finally approached the labour ministry last year, but was told her situation did not count as workplace bullying because the aggressor was not her superior and was not employed by the company, even though he came to the office “virtually every day”, she said.

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