South Korean workers turn the tide of bad bosses

SEOUL — A boss orders a worker to feed and clean up after his dog. An airline heiress brings a passenger plane back to the ground at the gate to abduct a flight attendant who rubbed her the wrong way. The 10-year-old granddaughter of a media tycoon hurls insults at her driver, threatening to fire him for being spoiled.

Such behavior has become so common in South Korea that the country now has a name for it: “gapjil”.

The word is a portmanteau to designate when “gap”, people in power, abuse “eul”, those who work for them. And in South Korea’s deeply hierarchical society, where social status is determined by profession, job title and wealth, hardly anyone has escaped its clutches.

More recently, however, gapjil sparked a backlash. On websites, street banners and even stickers in public restrooms, government agencies, police, civic groups and businesses offer “gapjil hotlines” encouraging citizens to report officials and bosses who abuse their authority.

Using intimidating language, offering bribes, attacking sub-contractors and not paying workers on time are all examples of gapjil. On college campuses, students hang signs accusing “gapjil teachers” of sexual harassment.

The campaigns seem to be working. Politicians, senior civil servants and corporate bigwigs have all had their reputations ruined after the gapjil scandals. Audiences swelled with pride – and a healthy dose of schadenfreude – as they watched the rich and powerful fall from grace to be, well, fools.

Gapjil became an electoral issue during the presidential campaign. Wife of leading contender Lee Jae-myung forced to apologize after being accused of treating government officials as if they were her personal servants, making them pick up takeout and to do his holiday shopping while Mr. Lee was provincial governor. Mr. Lee lost the election by a very slim margin.

“South Koreans live with a huge 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 the gapjil as leader of the small opposition Justice party.

Mr. Park knows the feeling.

In 2014, Cho Hyun-ah, the daughter of former Korean Air chairman Cho Yang-ho, forced a passenger plane traveling through New York’s Kennedy International Airport to return to the gate because she didn’t didn’t like the way the macadamia nuts were served to him in first class. Mr. Park and another flight attendant were forced to kneel in front of Ms. Cho, who only let the plane take off after Mr. Park was kicked off the plane.

The Korean Air family became the epitome of gapjil again, in 2018 when audio and video files emerged showing another daughter, Cho Hyun-min, and her mother, Lee Myung-hee, yelling insults at workers. The president had to apologize and banish his two daughters from management positions in the company.

There was a time when South Koreans were more likely to tolerate such behavior, especially when it came to super-rich families who run the country’s business conglomerates, known as chaebol, Park Jum- said. kyu, a leader of Gabjil 119, a civic group that offers legal advice to victims. (The band uses an alternate spelling of the word.)

“But people are now demanding higher standards about what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t,” Mr Park said. “Now when someone says to an authority figure, ‘Are you gapjiling me?’ the prosecution has a punch.

South Korea has one of the longest working weeks among the world’s wealthiest countries, and gapjil is often cited as one of the reasons for the country’s miserable working conditions. The phenomenon takes several forms, such as excessive hours without overtime and intimidation by supervisors.

“I hated it when they seemed like they had nothing to do but walk around the office commenting on the workers’ clothes, saying we couldn’t get married because of the way we dressed,” he said. said Hong Chae-yeong, referring to an older man. managers from his former corporate job. Ms. Hong, 30, said the behavior was one of the reasons she quit.

Corporate and government elites are known for a type of gapjil known as “imperial protocol,” which involves having a line of underlings holding umbrellas or commandeering elevators while ordinary people are forced to take the stairs. . In 2017, Kim Moo-sung, a political boss, became a symbol of that kind of entitlement when he wheeled a suitcase to an aide at the airport. He later became the object of public ridicule.

Some trace the origins of gapjil to South Korean military dictators, who imposed a culture of command and compliance that remains pervasive. It is both “the basic grammar” and “a deep-rooted malaise” of a South Korean society that reflects the “rankism its people are addicted to”, wrote Kang Jun-man, a media scholar, in his book on the gapjil.

“People who suffer from gapjil at work themselves commit gapjil when they are in a position of authority, such as when talking on the phone to a call center employee,” Cho Eun-mi said. , 37, who quit a stationery factory in April because of abusive language from her manager.

But the country’s march to democracy is also filled with stories of rebellion against the powerful: citizens pushing a dictator into exile, taking up arms against a military junta and staging mass rallies to win the right to free elections. .

The impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in 2017 began when it was revealed that her secret adviser, Choi Soon-sil, was accused of forcing an elite university to change its admissions policies to accept her daughter. “Money talks,” the girl said in a Facebook comment that sparked public outrage.

The recent whistleblower trend on gapjil also reflects a deep distrust of the justice system in South Korea, where many said courts rarely punish corporate elites who act as if they are above the law. In 2007, Kim Seung-youn, chairman of the Hanwha conglomerate, was jailed only briefly after assaulting workers.

And in 2010, Chey Cheol-won, a family member who ran the SK conglomerate, received only a suspended prison sentence after beating a labor activist with an aluminum baseball bat.

When gapjil victims exhaust the resources to legally address their grievances, they often resort to exposing the abusers in the court of public opinion, usually using camera phones and social media. In 2018, video footage emerged of Yang Jin-ho, the head of an online file-sharing company, mercilessly slapping a former employee.

In 2017, audio files emerged of Lee Jang-han, chairman of pharmaceutical company Chong Kun Dang, harassing his driver with a barrage of insults. “What kind of bastard was your father for raising a son like you?” he said.

Mr. Yang was imprisoned for violence and other crimes, while Mr. Lee was forced to hold a press conference to apologize.

Despite the anti-gapjil movement, South Korea may have a long way to go to make its work environment fairer and its society more egalitarian. A workplace harassment law came into effect in 2019, but it only imposes disciplinary action or a monetary penalty of up to $8,000 against violators. In a survey conducted by Gabjil 119 last year, almost 29% of workers reported workplace abuse.

“Gapjil is always treated as something that should be resolved within the company,” said Yun Ji-young, a human rights lawyer who helps gapjil victims. “There’s huge animosity against people who take the issue outside.”

Without further accountability, however, Gabjil 119’s Mr Park fears little will change for South Korean workers tormented by their abusive bosses. “We ended the military dictatorship and we deposed a president,” he said. “But we still need to change our working culture.”

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