South Korean workers turn the tables on their bad bosses

SEOUL – A boss orders a worker to feed and clean his dog. In heiress of the airline sends a taxiing passenger plane back to the gate to remove a flight attendant who scrubbed it the wrong way. The 10-year-old niece of a newspaper tycoon throws insults to his 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 for when “gap”, people with power, abuse “eul”, those who work for them. And in South Korea’s deeply hierarchical society, where one’s social standing is determined by profession, job title, and wealth, hardly anyone has escaped its claws.

More recently, however, gapjil has triggered a negative reaction. On websites, street banners and even stickers in public restrooms, government agencies, police, civic groups and corporations they are offeringgapjil hotline “ Encourage citizens to report officials and bosses who abuse their authority.

Using bullying language, offering bribes, preying on subcontractors, and not paying workers on time are all examples of gapjil. On college campuses, students are hung up signs accusing the “gapjil professors” of sexual harassment.

The campaigns seem to be working. Politicians, senior government officials and corporate bigwigs have seen their reputations ruined after the gapjil scandals. The audience swelled with pride – and a good dose of Schadenfreude – as they watched the rich and powerful fall out of favor for being, well, jerks.

Gapjil became an electoral problem during the presidential campaign. Lee Jae-myung’s wife, a prominent candidate, was forced to apologize after she was accused of treating government officials as if they were her personal servants, forcing them to take take-out food and grocery shopping while on vacation while Mr. Lee was a 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,” he said. Changjin Park, a former Korean Air flight attendant who campaigned against 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 President Cho Yang-ho, forced a taxiing passenger plane at New York’s Kennedy International Airport back to the gate because she didn’t like the way they were. the macadamia nuts he served her first class. Mr. Park and another flight attendant were forced to kneel in front of Ms. Cho, who only let the plane leave after Mr. Park was ejected from the plane.

The Korean Air family became the epitome of gapjil again, in 2018, when Audio Other video files emerged showing another daughter, Cho Hyun-min, e his mother, Lee Myung-hee, Shouting insults at workers. The president had to apologize and ban both of her daughters from executive positions at the company.

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

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

South Korea has one of the longest working weeks among the richest nations in the world, and gapjil is often cited as one of the reasons behind the country’s miserable working conditions. The phenomenon takes many forms, such as excessive hours without overtime and bullying by supervisors.

“I hated when they seemed to have nothing to do but go around the office commenting on the clothes of the workers, saying we couldn’t get married because of the way we dressed,” said Hong Chae-yeong, referring to the older male manager at his previous corporate job. Ms. Hong, 30, said her behavior was one of the reasons she quit.

Corporate and government elites are known for a type of gapjil known as “imperial protocol “, which includes having a line of subordinates holding umbrellas or commandeering elevators while ordinary people are forced to climb stairs. In 2017, Kim Moo-sung, a political leader, became a symbol of that kind of right when he rolled up a suitcase for an airport assistant. It later became an object of the public ridiculous.

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

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

But the country’s march towards democracy is also full of stories of rebellion against the powerful: citizens at the helm a dictator in exiletaking up arms against a military junta and holding massive rallies obtain the right to free elections.

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

The recent trend to sue gapjil also reflects a deep distrust of the justice system in South Korea, where many have said that courts rarely punish corporate elites for behaving as if they are above the law. In 2007, Kim Seung-youn, president of the Hanwha conglomerate, was jailed only briefly after to attack workers.

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

When gapjil victims run out of resources to legally address their grievances, they often resort to suing abusers in the court of public opinion, usually with the help of cell phones and social media. In 2018, video footage of Yang Jin-ho, the head of an online file sharing company, ruthlessly emerged slap a former employee.

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

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

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

“Gapjil is still treated as something that should be resolved within the company,” said Yun Ji-young, a human rights lawyer who helps gapjil victims. “There is enormous animosity against the people who bring the problem outward.”

With no more responsibility, however, Mr. Park in Gabjil 119 fears that little will change for South Korean workers harassed by their squatter bosses. “We ended the military dictatorship and impeached a president,” he said. “But we still have to change our workplace culture.”