Employment 2021

Last Updated September 07, 2021

South Korea

Law and Practice

Authors



Yoon & Yang LLC has an employment and labour practice group that consists of 22 attorneys and other professionals who all concentrate solely on employment issues. The types of issues that the practice group has recently represented are illegal worker dispatches, discriminations among different types of workers, implementation of performance-based salary systems, protection of non-regular workers and ordinary wage issues. The firm's key areas of practice are general HR issues – including performance-based salary systems, labour union activities, collective bargaining agreements and disciplinary regulations – employment issues in M&A, employment issues on corporate restructuring, and representation in labour disputes in civil, criminal and administrative proceedings.

The wholly amended Occupational Safety and Health Act (the OHSA) entered into force on January 16, 2020. The amendment:

  • expanded the scope of persons protected under the OHSA from “employees” to “persons who provides labour” in consideration of the new types of labour relationships that emerged;
  • included newly prescribed safety and health measures for workers in special types of employment who were unprotected under the former OHSA, including insurance agents, home-visiting tutors, caddies, and parcel couriers; and
  • expanded the scope of locations where a principal must take safety and health measures from “place where the principal and contractor’s employees work together” to “principal’s place of business and, where the principal provides or designates a workplace, such place controlled and managed by the principal.”

Meanwhile, the Act on Punishment of Serious Accidents, etc, (the "Serious Accidents Act") was promulgated on 29 January 2021, and it is scheduled to enter into effect on 27 January 2022. The objective of the Serious Accidents Act is to reinforce safety and health measures taken by companies, as well as prevent the root cause of serious accidents. One of the key aspects of the Serious Accidents Act is the strengthened penal provisions that subjects business owners to criminal sanctions who are in violation of the same Act.

The Serious Accidents Act has joint penal provisions that may punish both the company and its owner (or responsible management personnel) who are in violation the said Act. According to the Serious Accidents Act, where a serious industrial accident or serious civil accident occurs, owner of the business or responsible management personnel who is in violation of the obligation to secure safety and health measures may be subject to imprisonment not less than one year or criminal fine not exceeding KRW1 billion in addition to criminal fine imposed against the company in the amount not exceeding KRW5 billion.

The Korean government has been taking various initiatives to minimise the adverse effect of the COVID-19 crisis from an employment perspective. However, most of these initiatives are temporary in nature designed to cope with the direct impacts of COVID-19 or temporary easing of existing legal schemes.

Some of these temporary initiatives that provide monetary support to employers or employees include subsidies paid to:

  • employers for paid leaves taken by quarantined employees (maximum per diem amount of KRW130,000);
  • employees as living expenses based on the number of families in the employee’s household; and
  • employees for taking family care leaves to tend for family members affected by COVID-19 (maximum per diem amount of KRW50,000 for up to ten days).

Conversely, initiatives that temporarily ease existing legal schemes, requirements, or payment procedures include lenient operation of:

  • an “Employment Maintenance Subsidy Scheme” which prevents dismissal of an employee by subsidising employers who provide shutdown allowances to their employees (ie, allowances paid to employees who could not work during the business shutdowns);
  • a “Job Creation/Job Security Grant” system which subsidises labour costs to small and mid-sized enterprises that allow “flexible work” such as telecommuting or remote working; and
  • the government recommended companies grant leave to employees who have been vaccinated for COVID-19. The duration of recommended leave is as follows:
    1. on the vaccination date, the necessary time required for vaccination; and
    2. where employees experience side effects and request for additional leave, until the day following vaccination (up to two days following vaccination if the side effect lingers).

Korean labour laws do not distinguish blue-collar workers from white-collar workers, and these terms are merely used to describe employees providing different categories of work. Hence, both blue-collar workers and white-collar workers fall under “employees” defined under the Labor Standards Act, and are subject to identical treatment under other labour-related laws. The Labor Standards Act defines “employees” as persons who provide labour to businesses or at workplaces for the purpose of earning wages, irrespective of job types.

Meanwhile, forms of employment can be largely categorised into two types:

  • direct employment by the employer; and
  • indirect employment of another employer’s employee.

The foregoing forms may be further narrowed down based on the employee’s employment contract period and roles. 

There are no differences in statuses between employees across the job types. All types of workers are considered identically as employees under the Labor Standards Act, and all labour-related laws equally apply to both types of workers.

Among various types of employment contracts, the two major types are “employment contracts without a fixed term” (ie, indefinite employment contracts) and “employment contracts with a fixed term” (ie, definite employment contracts). The Labor Standards Act does not have provisions that separately govern the duration of employment contracts. Therefore, employers and employees may freely determine the employment contract durations.

However, definite employment contracts are governed by the Act on the Protection, etc, of Fixed-term and Part-time Workers (the Fixed-term Workers Act). According to Article 4 of the Fixed-term Workers Act, employment contracts with a fixed term in excess of two years are considered to be indefinite employment contracts.

Article 17(1) and (2) of the Labor Standards Act provides that employment contracts must explicitly provide for the terms and conditions of employment in writing. In particular, employment contracts must include provisions on:

  • wages (eg, composition of wages, methods for calculating wages and methods for paying wages);
  • contractual working hours;
  • weekly holidays; and
  • annual paid leaves. 

Moreover, employers are obliged to deliver such employment contracts to the employees.

Maximum Working Hours

The Labor Standards Act provisions on working hours were recently amended on 28 February 2018. The maximum working hours per week has been reduced from 68 hours to 52 hours per week. This change has been in effect as of 1 July 2018.

Article 50(1) and (2) of the Labor Standards Act provides that working hours may not exceed eight hours per day and 40 hours per week. However, Article 53(1) allows employers to extend the foregoing working hours, as overtime, by up to 12 hours per week upon obtaining the relevant employee's consent.

For the purposes of determining the working hours, one week refers to seven days including holidays. Thus, the weekly maximum working hours with the permitted extensions is 52 hours (40 hours per week plus up to 12 hours of overtime).

Meanwhile, under limited circumstances where certain criteria are satisfied, the Labor Standards Act recognises the following types of “flexible working systems”.

Flexible Work Hours System (Article 51 of the Labor Standards Act)

In a Flexible Work Hours System, working hours are increased during the weeks where work is concentrated but reduced during other weeks so that, on average, the weekly working hours are within the statutory working hours (ie, 40 hours).

Selective Work Hours System (Article 52 of the Labor Standards Act)

In a Selective Work Hours System, an employee may freely choose their working hours over a certain period (not exceeding one month, or, in the case of work pertaining to research and development of new products or new technologies, not exceeding three months), so long as the total working hours do not exceed the statutory working hours for such period. In this system, the employee may decide when they will begin and end work, as well as the number of hours to work in a day.

Presumed Work Hours System (Article 58(1) of the Labor Standards Act)

Presumed Work Hours Systems are used in circumstances where it is difficult to calculate the hours of work performed by an employee because such employee provides labour outside the workplace. In a Presumed Work Hours System, employees are presumed to have worked:

  • their contractual hours;
  • hours that are typically needed to perform the relevant work; or
  • hours that have been agreed in writing with the employees’ representative for a particular work.

Discretionary Work Hours System (Article 58(3) of the Labor Standards Act)

Discretionary Work Hours Systems apply to limited types of work prescribed under the Enforcement Decree of the Labor Standards Act. These types of work consist of those that have been legally recognised, based on the nature of the work, to require employees’ discretion in determining how the work should be performed. In a Discretionary Work Hours System, working hours that have been agreed in writing between the employer and the employees’ representative are recognised as hours worked by the employees. 

Part-Time Contracts

Employees under part-time employment contracts are also considered as “employees” within the meaning of the Labor Standards Act. Hence, the laws do not require part-time employment contracts to have specific terms that are different from ordinary employment contracts. Further, the format used for part-time employment contracts is identical to that of ordinary employment contracts. However, considering the nature of part-time work, a part-time employment contract must clearly indicate the working hours.

Overtime

As described above, statutory working hours under Article 50(1) and (2) of the Labor Standards Act may not exceed eight hours per day and 40 hours per week (excluding break times). However, such statutory working hours may be extended as overtime by up to 12 hours per week in accordance with Article 53(1) of the Labor Standards Act, so long as the employees consent to such overtime.

Article 56 of the Labor Standards Act governs overtime pay. More specifically, at least 50% of the ordinary wage must be additionally paid for:

  • overtime worked in excess of the statutory working hours (ie, eight hours per day, 40 hours per week);
  • work performed during holidays; and
  • work performed during night-time (ie, between 10pm and 6am).

Minimum Wage Requirements

By August 5th of every year, the Minister of Employment and Labor determines the minimum wage applicable in the following year. The publicly announced minimum wage becomes effective as of January 1st of the following year. Currently, the hourly minimum wage for 2021 is KRW8,720. The hourly minimum wage for 2022 has been scheduled to be KRW9,160.

Employers are required to pay at least the minimum wage to their employees pursuant to Article 6(1) of the Minimum Wage Act. Therefore, in accordance with Article 6(3) of the Minimum Wage Act, employment contracts that stipulate for wages below the minimum wage level are invalidated as to such stipulation and, by operation of law, the wages under such employment contracts are presumed to be minimum wages.

Thirteenth Month and Other Bonuses

There is no legal requirement for employers in Korea to pay thirteenth-month bonuses, etc. Under the Korean labour laws, employers are only obliged to pay monthly wages and severance pay upon employees’ resignation.

To describe employers’ obligation to provide severance pay in more detail, Article 8(1) of the Act on the Guarantee of Workers' Retirement Benefits requires employers to set up a system that enables the employers to pay a retiring worker a severance pay in the prorated amount equivalent to average wages earned for 30 days for each year of the resigning employee’s continuous service. Therefore, even if the severance payments are not covered in the employment contracts or otherwise covered in the employer’s rules of employment, such payments must be provided upon employees’ resignation.

If an employer is paying its “periodic bonuses” as 13th-month bonuses in Korea, such payment is at the employer’s complete discretion, and there are no provisions in the Labor Standards Act that prohibit such bonuses.

Government Intervention

The minimum wage system is the most classic example of the government’s interventions in compensation. The government determines the minimum wage on a yearly basis. For 2021, the hourly minimum wage for 2021 is KRW8,720.

Aside from the minimum wage system, the government may make compensation-related interventions by overseeing whether employers are, among other things, paying the statutory severance, as well as paying the additional wages that must be paid for work performed in overtime, during holidays or during night-time.

Vacations and Vacation Pay

The most typical types of vacation available for employees are:

  • weekly holidays;
  • public holidays (ie, holidays prescribed under Presidential Decree); and
  • annual paid leaves.

Weekly holiday (under Article 55 of the Labor Standards Act and Article 30 of the Enforcement Decree of the Labor Standards Act) refers to a paid vacation given to employees who have “worked continuously” for the contractual working days in a single week. If employees provide such “continuous work” for contractual working days in one week, employers are required to grant, on average, more than one paid vacation per week.

A public holiday prescribed under Presidential Decree refers to statutory holidays (excluding Sundays) and alternative statutory holidays provided under the “Regulation on Holidays of Government Offices.” An employer must guarantee such public holidays to its employees on a paid basis. However, an employer may substitute public holidays with other working days by entering into a written agreement with the employee representative (see Article 55(2) of the Labour Standards Act) and the regulation on holidays comes into effect at different times based on the number of employees employed by an employer.

Annual paid leaves are prescribed under Article 60 of the Labor Standards Act, and it refers to 15 days of paid vacation granted to employees who have worked for at least 80% of a year. If an employee has provided continuous work for less than a full year or worked less than 80% of a year, then one day of paid vacation is granted as annual paid leave for every month in which an employee provided continuous work.

Required Leave

Leaves that are statutorily guaranteed include maternity leave, paternity leave, fertility treatment leave, childcare leave, family-care leave, short-term family-care leave, and menstrual leave.

Maternity leave

Maternity leave is covered under Article 74(1) of the Labor Standards Act, and it refers to a leave granted to pregnant women prior to and after childbirth. Statutes on maternity leave are mandatory provisions and, thus, neither the employer’s right to adjust the timing of such leave nor an employee’s forfeiture of the right to take such leave is recognised under the law. Employers must grant a total of 90 continuous days of leave prior to and after childbirth, and at least 45 days out of such 90-day leave must be allocated after childbirth.

Paternity leave

Paternity leave is covered under Article 18-2 of the Equal Employment Opportunity and Work-family Balance Assistance Act (the Equal Employment Opportunity Act). If an employee requests paternity leave due to the employee’s spouse’s childbirth, an employer is obliged to grant a leave of ten days. However, an employee may not request paternity leave after 90 days from the date the employee’s spouse gives birth to a child. Paternity leave granted to an employee is on a paid basis. An employer is prohibited from dismissing, or taking any disadvantageous measures against, an employee on the basis of paternity leave.

Fertility treatment

Fertility treatment leave is covered under Article 18-3 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. If an employee requests fertility treatment leave in order to take medical treatment such as artificial insemination or in vitro fertilisation, an employer is obliged to grant up to three days of leave per year, first day of which is on a paid basis.

Childcare

Childcare leave is covered under Article 19 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. If an employee requests childcare leave in order to tend for their child who is eight years of age or younger or in second grade or lower in elementary school, then an employer must permit a childcare leave of up to one year. Further, upon returning from the childcare leave, the employer must reinstitute the returning employee back to the same position or a position with the same wage level as prior to taking the childcare leave.

Family care

Family-care leave is covered under Article 22-2 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Article 16-3 of the Enforcement Decree of the same Act. An employee may request for the family-care leave in order to care for their grandparents, parents, spouse, parents-in-law, or grandchildren (hereinafter, Family) on grounds of their disease, accident, or senility. If family-care leave is requested, an employer is obliged to grant up to 90 days of leave per year. Family-care leave may be taken over multiple occasions, provided that each of these leave is at least 30 days long.

Short-term family-care leave is also covered under Article 22-2 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Article 16-3 of the Enforcement Decree of the same Act. An employee may request for the short-term family-care leave in order to urgently care for their family on grounds of their disease, accident, or senility, or to urgently rear for their children. If family-care leave is requested, an employer is obliged to grant up to ten days of leave per year, which may be taken in increments as short as a single day. The number of days taken as short-term family-care leave is counted towards the ordinary family-care leave.

Menstrual leave

Menstrual leave is covered under Article 73 of the Labor Standards Act, and employers must grant one day of unpaid menstrual leave per month upon request from a female employee.

Confidentiality and Non-disparagement

There are no provisions under the Korean labour laws that restrict employers from requiring confidentiality and non-disparagement obligations from their employees. Therefore, employers may enter into confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements with employees. Employees’ breach of such agreements would enable employers to take disciplinary actions. Further, if an employer suffers damages from an employee’s breach of confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements, then the employer would be able to seek civil damages.

In addition to contractual agreements on confidentiality, trade secrets, as defined under the Unfair Competition Prevention and Trade Secret Protection Act (the Trade Secret Act), are legally protected. According to Article 2 of the Trade Secret Act, trade secrets refer to information (including production methods, sale methods and useful technical or business information for commercial activities) that:

  • is not publicly known;
  • has been maintained as a secret; and
  • has independent economic value.

In other words, for a trade secret to be protected under the law, it must be undisclosed, kept confidential and useful. Undisclosed trade secrets are those that are not publicly known, and the confidentiality element requires the trade secret to be a secret that deserves legal protection. Lastly, a trade secret is useful if it has an independent economic value.

Therefore, so long as a trade secret satisfies all of the three requirements above, then a person (including employers) may request the court for a prohibition or preventative order against any person (including employees) who infringes or is likely to infringe trade secrets, if the business interest of the employer who possesses the trade secrets suffers damages or is likely to suffer damages due to such infringement (see Article 10(1) of the Trade Secret Act).

Employee Liability

Korean labour laws do not have provisions that restrict or limit an employee’s contractual or tort liabilities. However, the Korean Supreme Court has previously held that where an employer suffers direct damages due to an employee’s tortious act committed while performing their work, then such employer’s right to claim damage compensation from the employee is limited, based on the notion of fair distribution of the damages, to an amount that is deemed appropriate under the principle of good faith. In this regard, employee liability can be deemed to be partially limited.

On a separate note, obligations of employees are not expressly governed under the Labor Standards Act. Rather, employees’ obligations are stipulated under the employers’ rules of employment. Some of the common obligations of employees include to:

  • arrive at work on time;
  • not hold concurrent positions;
  • keep secrets acquired in connection with work confidential;
  • not destroy or remove equipment or facilities from the company;
  • not engage in unlawful conducts;
  • expend full efforts at work; and
  • perform work in a diligent manner in good faith.

Breach of such obligations and responsibilities may subject the relevant employees to disciplinary actions.

The Korean Commercial Act imposes a non-competition obligation upon directors, whereas employees are not subject to the same restriction. Nevertheless, employees’ non-competition obligation can be partially recognised through interpretations of court precedents.

The Korean Supreme Court has held that where an employment contract has a non-competition clause, such clause is valid, so long as it is reasonable. However, if the non-competition clause excessively restricts employees’ constitutionally protected rights (eg, freedom in choosing jobs or providing labour) or free competition, then such non-competition clause is invalid for going against Article 103 of the Civil Act.

The Korean Supreme Court further held that, in order to determine whether a non-competition clause is valid, there must be a comprehensive consideration of various factors. Among other things, the court considers:

  • whether the employer has an interest that necessitates protection;
  • the resigning employee’s position and rank;
  • the reasons for the employee’s resignation;
  • territorial scope, period and the types of jobs restricted through the non-competition clause;
  • whether the employee received compensation in exchange for signing the non-competition clause; and
  • public interest furthered by the non-competition clause.

Employees

Korean labour laws do not forbid or restrict non-solicitation clauses that prohibit former employees from soliciting other employees who remain employed with the former employer. Therefore, employers may include such non-solicitation provisions within their employment contracts, and require their employees to pay liquidated damages pursuant to Article 398 of the Civil Act for a breach of such an agreement. In addition to liquidated damages, employers may seek civil damages for breach of contract if the employer suffers ascertainable damages from the employee’s breach.

Non-solicitation clauses can also trigger issues regarding trade secret infringements under the Trade Secret Act. The Korean Supreme Court has held that where a person who acquired technological information that qualifies as a trade secret moves to another company and attempts to disclose and use such trade secret at such other company, then such act constitutes violation of the confidentiality obligation under Article 2.3(D) of the Trade Secret Act. Further, the company that recruits such person is in violation of Article 2.3(A) for unlawfully acquiring a trade secret.

Customers

It is difficult to deem a former employee’s solicitation of their former employer’s customers as an infringement of trade secrets within the meaning of the Trade Secret Act.

However, the Korean labour laws do not forbid or otherwise restrict an employer from requiring its employees to sign an employment contract that includes a non-solicitation clause that prohibits those employees from soliciting the employer’s customers upon termination of the employment relationship.

In Korea, the Personal Information Protection Act serves as the framework act in relation to data privacy. As such, unless otherwise regulated through separate legislations, data privacy and personal information are governed by the Personal Information Protection Act.

In this regard, the Act on Promotion of Information and Communications Network Utilization and Information Protection, etc (the Info-communications Act) takes precedence over other laws with regard to personal information processed between a telecommunications business operator and its users (ie, customers). Further, the Credit Information Use and Protection Act (the Credit Information Act) takes precedence over other laws regarding matters on an individual’s credit information. However, all three of the foregoing data privacy laws have been amended on 4 February 2020.

These amendments either remove provisions relating to personal information from the Info-communications Act and Credit Information Act or add special provisions within the Personal Information Act. Once these amendments go in to effect on 5 August 2020, data privacy laws will de facto be unified under the Personal Information Protection Act. Personal information processed between the employer and its employees are governed by the Personal Information Protection Act.

Duty to Comply

An employer’s duty to comply with the Personal Information Protection Act begins from the recruiting stage and extends beyond the termination of the employment agreement with its employees. During the foregoing period, the employer must collect and/or use the employee’s personal information in compliance with the Personal Information Protection Act. Employers may independently collect and/or use the employee’s personal information, and, if necessary, employers may also:

  • outsource work relating to processing of collected personal information; or
  • provide collected personal information to third parties in accordance with the relevant laws.

Employers are required to store the collected personal information safely, and the collected personal information must be destroyed once it is no longer necessary due to reasons such as:

  • fulfilling the purposes for which the personal information was collected; and
  • expiration of the storage period of collected information (here, the storage period refers to the period consented to by the employees or otherwise prescribed under the applicable laws).

Methods of employing foreigners can be largely divided into two categories. The first method is through the “Hiring Foreigners with Professional Skills” system and “Other Status Stay that permits Employment (mainly those who are not professionals or simple-skilled workers)” under the Immigration Act. The second method consists of the “Employment Permit System” and “Work Permit System” based on the Act on Employment, etc, of Foreign Workers (the “Foreign Worker Employment Act”).

To begin with, the Employment Permit System is a system that allows an employer to employ certain foreigners if that employer could not hire domestic employees despite its recruiting efforts.

The Work Permit System, on the other hand, allows a foreigner who satisfies certain conditions to obtain a work permit in Korea to be employed with an employer of such foreigner’s choice. This system allows for a relatively broader movement of foreign workers among workplaces in Korea compared to the Employment Permit System. In Korea, the Employment Permit System ordinarily serves as the default system for hiring manual labourers. As for Koreans who hold foreign nationalities, the Work Permit System is applied.

Defining Foreign Workers

Article 2 of the Foreign Worker Employment Act defines “foreign worker” as a person without Korean nationality who provides or desires to provide labour in return for wages in any business or workplace situated within Korea. Anyone within the meaning of “foreign worker” must satisfy the requirements and follow the requisite procedures under the Foreign Worker Employment Act in order to be employed in Korea. In addition, any matters not provided under the Foreign Worker Employment Act relating to entering, leaving or staying in Korea must be handled in accordance with the Immigration Act.

Pursuant to Article 18 of the Foreign Worker Employment Act, a foreign worker may pursue employment activities for up to three years from the date they entered Korea. Further, foreigners staying in Korea, as a principle, are subject to the sovereignty of Korea. Additionally, unless a foreigner’s rights under the public or private laws are otherwise restricted through treaties or laws, foreigners and Koreans receive identical protections.

Visas

Meanwhile, the Foreign Worker Employment Act provides that the Act does not apply to foreigners with any of the following visas who are permitted to stay and work in Korea (ie, visas that allow the visa-holder to pursue employment activities in Korea):

  • short-term employees (C-4), professors (E-1), foreign language instructors (E-2), research (E-3), technology transfer (E-4), professional employment (E-5), artistic performers (E-6) and designated activities (E-7);
  • residence permits for overseas Koreans, such as permanent residence (F-2, F-4, F-5, F-6); and
  • working holiday (H-1).

According to Article 6(1) of the Foreign Worker Employment Act, a person who intends to hire “ordinary” foreign workers (through the Employment Permit System) must first post a job opening for a domestic worker through an employment security office defined under the Employment Security Act.

If, despite the foregoing efforts to hire a domestic employee, an employer fails to hire a new personnel, then, as prescribed under Article 8(1) of the Foreign Worker Employment Act, the employer must apply for an employment permit for foreign workers from the head of the employment security office in accordance with the requirements under the enforcement decrees of the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

If an employer satisfies the conditions for employing foreigners, then the employer may apply for the issuance of an employment permit from an employment assistance centre. Upon receipt of such application, the employment assistance centre makes worker referrals (in multiples of three). The employer can then select the personnel qualified for the job among the referred workers and obtain an employment permit for such worker (see Article 8 of the Foreign Worker Employment Act).

Simultaneously upon issuance of the employment permit, a standard employment contract is drafted based on the working conditions described in the employer’s application for the employment permit.

Once the said employment contract is executed, a visa issuance certificate is issued, after which the selected foreign worker is dispatched to the relevant workplace upon that foreign worker’s arrival to Korea and completion of employment training.

Article 2.4 of the Trade Union and Labor Relations Adjustment Act (the Trade Union Act) defines a trade union (ie, a labour union) as “an organisation or associated organisations of employees, which is formed voluntarily and collectively upon the employees’ initiative for the purpose of maintaining and improving their working conditions and enhancing their economic and social status.” However, such organisation or associated organisations of employees are not considered as trade unions if:

  • an employer or other person who always acts in the interest of the employer is allowed to join;
  • most of the union’s expenditure is funded by the employer;
  • its activities are only aimed at mutual benefits, moral culture and other welfare undertakings (as opposed to enhancing employees’ working conditions);those who are not employees are allowed to join the union; or
  • the main purpose of the union is to engage in political activities.

The most important function and role of a trade union is engaging in “collective bargaining” with the employer and thereby executing a “collective agreement” in order to foster enhancement and preservation of employees’ working conditions (see Articles 29 and 31 of the Trade Union Act).

In addition, trade unions may engage in “collective actions” in order to carry through with their positions in a dispute against the management arising from disagreements concerning working conditions (see Articles 2.5 and 2.6 of the Trade Union Act).

Article 29 of the Trade Union Act confers the representative of a trade union with the authority to bargain and enter into a collective agreement with the employer on behalf of the trade union and its members. Hence, any bylaws or internal regulations applicable to trade unions that limit the foregoing authority of a trade union’s representative are deemed invalid.

Neither the Trade Union Act nor any relevant laws provide for methods of appointing or electing a representative for a trade union. Therefore, methods and procedures for appointing or electing the trade union representative can be determined through bylaws or internal regulation of the trade unions, and the trade union representative should be appointed or elected accordingly.

"Collective agreement" refers to a written agreement that entails terms on working conditions (eg, wages and working hours) of the trade union members that have been negotiated through the collective bargaining process. Collective agreements are signed and executed by and between the trade union and the employer.

Collective agreements not only define contractual obligations of the parties, but also have normative effects of regulating the employment contract between the employer and individual employee. For example, Article 33 of the Trade Union Act invalidates portions of the employment contract or the employer’s rules of employment that fall foul of the standards for working conditions stipulated in the collective agreement. In other words, a collective agreement that has been entered into on an equal footing between the labourers and the management takes precedence over the individual employment contracts or rules of employment set by the employer.

Collective agreements also entail a “peace obligation” that, during the effective period of the collective agreement requires the parties to mutually comply with the provisions within the collective agreement and prohibits the trade union from taking collective actions for the purposes of modifying the terms of the collective agreement that have already been agreed between the parties.

Ordinarily, contracts are binding only upon the parties to such contracts. For collective agreements, however, the binding effect of the agreement may also extend to third parties (ie, non-parties to the agreement) if “certain conditions are satisfied” (see Articles 35 and 36 of the Trade Union Act).

In Korea, termination of employment can occur in the following ways:

  • occurrence of grounds for automatic termination (eg, employee reaching retirement age, death of employee or expiry of the contract period);
  • employer’s unilateral dismissal of the employee; and
  • termination through mutual agreement between the employer and employee.

There is no difference in procedures depending on the grounds for dismissal and, hence, the general requirements for dismissals are identical regardless of on what ground an employee is dismissed. In particular, Article 26 of the Labor Standards Act prescribes that an employer must give an employee a prior notice of at least 30 days if the employer intends to dismiss such employee. If this notice requirement is unsatisfied, the employer must pay the employee an additional sum of money equivalent to at least 30 days’ worth of the employee’s ordinary wages. The foregoing requirement applies even in circumstances where employees are dismissed due to managerial reasons.

In addition to the prior notice requirement, the employer must, in order to dismiss an employee, provide the employee with a “written” notice in accordance with Article 27 of the Labor Standards Act. Further, the said written notice must describe the reason for dismissing the employee as well as when the employee is to be dismissed.

Automatic Termination

No “motivation” is required because the employment is terminated irrespective of the employer or employee’s intent. However, if employment is terminated due to expiry of the contract period, and if the terminated employee had a legitimate expectation for a renewal of their employment contract, then it may be difficult for the employer to terminate the employment relationship unilaterally against the relevant employee’s will without a justifiable cause.

Unilateral Dismissal

Article 23(1) of the Labor Standards Act requires employers to have a justifiable cause when dismissing, laying off, suspending or transferring an employee, reducing an employee’s wages or taking other disciplinary actions. As such, employers may only terminate employees against their will if the employer has a “justifiable cause”. The Korean Supreme Court has defined that there is a justifiable cause if, due to a fault attributable to the employee, it is impossible for the employer and the employee to, under generally accepted social norms, continue their employment relationship.

Mutual Termination

This refers to termination of employment upon the employer and employee’s mutual agreement. Mutual terminations can further be narrowed down to, among others, cases where employees voluntarily resign upon submission of a letter of resignation, and employees accept the employer’s suggestion to resign, in which case the employment relationship is terminated upon the parties’ execution of a separation agreement.

Collective Redundancies

Article 24 of the Labor Standards Act governs dismissals based on managerial reasons, and it includes mass layoffs (ie, collective redundancies). In order for an employer to dismiss its employees for managerial reasons, all of the following requirements must be met:

  • there must be an urgent managerial need;
  • the employer must take all efforts to avoid dismissals;
  • the employer must select employees to be dismissed based on reasonable and fair standards; and
  • the employer must notify the dismissal no later than 50 days prior to the dismissal and engage in good-faith discussions with the employees’ representative.

These requirements have been further explained by the Supreme Courts as noted below.

Urgent managerial need

An urgent managerial need is not limited to circumstances where a layoff is required for the company to avoid bankruptcy. If there is a reasonable and objective need for a reduction in the workforce in order to prepare for a potential future risk, then such need qualifies as an urgent managerial need.

Efforts to avoid dismissal

“Taking all efforts to avoid dismissals” refers to taking all possible measures to minimise the number of dismissals by, among other things, streamlining work methods or managerial policies, freezing new hires, utilising temporary suspensions, suggesting voluntary resignations (via offering additional compensation, etc) and transferring employees. The measures to be taken and their degree are neither fixed nor conclusively defined and, thus, whether adequate measures were taken depends on multiple factors, including the managerial risks faced by the relevant employer, managerial reasons as to why layoffs should be made, type and scale of the business, and the number of employees at various levels of positions.

Reasonable and fair standards

The definition of “reasonable and fair standards” is also fluid. It considers various factors to determine what is “reasonable and fair”, such as the magnitude of the managerial risks faced by the relevant employer, managerial reasons that necessitate layoffs, type of business performed by the relevant division and composition of employees thereof, social and economic conditions during the period when layoff is taken, etc. Further, when determining the standards for selecting the employees to be laid off, the employer’s circumstances relating to its managerial interests can be considered concurrently with the employees’ interest, as long as the employer’s interest is objectively reasonable.

Notice period

The last requirement of 50 days' prior notice and good-faith discussion does not affect the validity of a layoff even if it is not satisfied. Therefore, if there had been sufficient time to notify the employees and engage in good-faith discussions, then the layoff is valid, so long as all other requirements have been satisfied.

Notice Periods

As noted, employers must, pursuant to Article 26 of the Labor Standards Act, give an employee a prior notice of at least 30 days if the employer intends to dismiss such employee. This notice requirement applies also to dismissals caused by managerial reasons. In addition, much like procedures for taking disciplinary actions, employers are required to provide a prior notice (usually one week before the meeting) that an HR committee meeting will be held.

Other than the foregoing, the Labor Standards Act does not provide for a mandatory notice period. However, if the employer provides for a separate notice period in its rules of employment that are not required by the law, then such procedures must be complied with.

Severance

If an employer fails to give the requisite prior notice of 30 days before dismissing an employee, then the employer must pay the employee an additional sum of money equivalent to at least 30 days’ worth of the employee’s ordinary wages pursuant to Article 26 of the Labor Standards Act.

Also, aside from the foregoing requirements to provide a prior notice and to pay additional allowances for failing to provide a prior notice, there are additional severance pay-related requirements under the Act on the Guarantee of Workers' Retirement Benefits (the Retirement Benefits Act). The Retirement Benefits Act requires employers to provide severance payments or retirement pensions to resigning employees who have been employed for at least one year. To provide the foregoing payments or pensions, an employer is required to operate a retirement-benefit scheme in accordance with the Retirement Benefits Act.

Article 23(1) of the Labor Standards Act requires employers to have justifiable cause when dismissing an employee. The Korean Supreme Court has defined that there is a justifiable cause if, due to a fault attributable to the employee, it is impossible for the employer and the employee to, under generally accepted social norms, continue their employment relationship. Whether continuance of employment relationship is impossible under the generally accepted social norms is determined upon a comprehensive consideration of various factors, including:

  • the purpose and nature of the employer’s business;
  • workplace conditions;
  • the employee’s position and responsibilities;
  • how and why the employee engaged in misconduct;
  • the impact such misconduct will have on the sound order of the business; and
  • the employee’s past behaviour.

Common Grounds for Dismissal

Ordinarily, grounds for dismissal are stipulated under a company’s rules of employment and other relevant internal regulations. Some of the most common grounds for dismissal recognised through court precedents are:

  • misrepresentation or concealment of educational background and work experience;
  • fabricating résumés;
  • bad behaviours at work, such as unexcused absences;
  • refusing to follow orders relating to personnel movements (eg, transfers);
  • assaulting colleagues or supervisors;
  • inflicting harm to the company through criminal conduct (eg, embezzlement, breach of duty); and
  • personal misconduct committed outside of the workplace.

Valid Dismissals

Pursuant to the Labor Standards Act, an employer must provide a prior notice of 30 days prior to the employee’s dismissal (Article 26) and notify the detailed reason for, and timing of, the dismissal in writing (Article 27).

Further, if an employer has collective agreements, rules of employment, employment contracts or other relevant agreements that separately provide for additional procedures of taking disciplinary actions, then the employer must comply with such procedures. The Korean Supreme Court has also held that disciplinary dismissals are invalid if an employer failed to follow the procedures laid out in its collective agreements, rules of employment, employment contracts or other relevant agreements when dismissing an employee.

An employer’s dismissal of its employee is valid if the employer can justify:

  • its reason(s) for taking the disciplinary action;
  • the procedures followed for taking the disciplinary action; and
  • the level and/or adequacy of the disciplinary action taken.

However, the Korean Supreme Court has held that if any of the foregoing factors cannot be justified, then the resulting disciplinary dismissal is invalid.

An employer and employee may terminate their employment relationship upon mutual agreement. There are no specific requirements as to the methods of, or procedures/formalities for, mutually agreeing to terminate the employment relationship, as long as the termination is based on the employer and employee’s free will. Ordinarily, however, an employee voluntarily submits a letter of resignation to the employer and the employer accepts such letter of resignation by the employee to terminate the employment contract.

The Labor Standards Act does not govern voluntary terminations of employment based on the free will of both the employer and employee. Although the Labor Standards Act does not have any restrictions on employers and employees terminating their relationship through a mutual agreement, the Korean Supreme Court deems termination agreements to be invalid if such mutual agreement was not a product of the employee’s genuine intent.

Article 23(2) of the Labor Standards Act protects employees from dismissals when an employee is on a leave for medical treatment of an occupational injury or disease and within 30 days immediately following that employee’s return, and when an employee is on a maternity leave and within 30 days immediately following such employee’s return. However, the foregoing protections do not apply if the employer has paid lump sum compensation to the relevant employee in accordance with Article 84 of the Labor Standards Act or if the employer is no longer able to continue its business.

The Labor Standards Act does not have provisions relating to dismissals, etc of an employee representative. However, if the collective agreement (or other similar agreement) requires the employer to obtain the trade union’s consent to dismiss an employee representative or a union member, then the employer must comply with such requirement. Otherwise, the employer’s actions taken against the relevant employees are deemed invalid pursuant to the Korean Supreme Court precedents.

An employee may make a wrongful dismissal claim by (i) filing a civil suit for invalidation of the dismissal and disputing whether their dismissal was justified, and (ii) petitioning for a wrongful dismissal relief from the local Labor Relations Commission (the Local Commission). The civil suit for invalidation of dismissal and petition for a wrongful dismissal relief are two independent systems. Therefore, an employee may choose to proceed with either or both of the systems.

Civil Suit

When an employee proceeds with the first of the two options above and subjects the dismissal to a dispute, then the Court of First Instance must decide as to the validity of the dismissal. Both the employer and employee may challenge the Court of First Instance’s decision by filing an appeal within two weeks from the date the written court decision was served to the relevant party. If either of the parties wishes to challenge the decision rendered by a High Court or a panel of district court judges acting as a Court of Second Instance then the parties must file an appeal to the Supreme Court within two weeks from the date the written decision was served for a final and conclusive judgment.

Petition for Relief

If an employee proceeds with the second option, then the petition for relief must be filed with the Local Commission within three months from the date the employee was dismissed. Once the petition for relief is filed, the Local Commission determines whether the employer was justified in dismissing the employee. Article 31 of the Labor Standards Act provides that both the employer and employee may challenge the Local Commission’s decision by requesting for a new examination to the national Labor Relations Commission (the National Commission) in accordance with the Labor Relations Commission Act within ten days of being notified of the Local Commission’s decision.

If either of the parties wishes to challenge the National Commission’s decision upon a re-examination, then the relevant party must file an administrative lawsuit in accordance with the Administrative Litigation Act within 15 days of being served with the National Commission’s decision. The administrative lawsuit can be appealed twice, much like the first option (ie, civil lawsuit) described above.

In the past, where the petitioning employee could not be reinstated to original position due to expiration of contract period or reaching retirement age, the Labor Relations Commission dismissed the employee’s petition without reviewing the claim because the petition did not satisfy the criteria for a review. However, the amended Labor Standards Act which will enter into force on 19 November 2021 prescribes in Article 30(4) that “Labor Relations Commission shall issue a remedial order or dismissal decision (ie, dismissing the case on merits after reviewing the claim) in accordance with paragraph (1) even if the employee cannot be reinstated to original position (or for cases other than dismissal, reinstated to original condition) due to expiration of contract period, reaching retirement age, etc. In such a case, if the Labor Relations Commission determines that the dismissal was unlawful, it may order the employer to pay the employee an amount equivalent to the wages the employee would have received had the employee continued to provide services during the period he/she was dismissed (or for cases other than dismissal, an amount equivalent to reinstate the employee to original condition).” Therefore, once the foregoing amendment takes effect, the Labor Relations Commission must review the petition filed by an employee irrespective of whether the employee can or cannot be reinstated to original position (or original condition if the employee was not dismissed) and either render a:

  • remedial order (if the employee’s petition is supported by justifiable cause); or
  • dismissal decision (if the employee’s petition is not supported by justifiable cause).

Korean labour laws that prohibit employers from discriminating against employees include the:

  • Labor Standards Act;
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Act;
  • Fixed-term Workers Act;
  • Act on the Protection, etc. of Temporary Agency Workers (the Temporary Agency Workers Act); and
  • Act on Prohibition of Age Discrimination in Employment and Elderly Employment Promotion (the Age Discrimination Act).

The foregoing legislations protect employees from various types of discriminations identified in the respective acts’ legislative intent and purpose as described below.

  • Labor Standards Act: Article 6 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on gender. Further, employers are prohibited from discriminating in relation to employees’ working conditions based on nationality, religion or social status.
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Act: Article 7(1) prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of gender when recruiting or hiring employees. Also, Article 8(1) prohibits wage discrimination by requiring employers to provide equal pay for equal work performed within the same business.
  • Fixed-term Workers Act: Article 8(1) prohibits employers from discriminating between employees under definite employment contracts and other employees under indefinite employment contracts who work in the same business or workplace, or in the same or similar positions.
  • Temporary Agency Workers Act: Article 21(1) prohibits employers of agency employees (ie, dispatch agencies) and users of dispatched agency employees (ie, companies that use dispatched agency employees; the User Company) from discriminating between such dispatched employees and other employees of the User Company who perform the same or similar work.
  • Age Discrimination Act: Article 4-4(1) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of age without justifiable grounds as to the following:
    1. recruitment and employment;
    2. wage, provision of money and valuables other than salary, and other welfare benefits;
    3. education and training;
    4. job placement, transfer or promotion; and
    5. retirement and dismissal.

Burden of Proof

Ordinarily, the party raising a legal claim bears the burden of proof in substantiating their claim. However, the Korean labour laws determine whether laws have been violated based on the substantive, as opposed to formalistic, standards when the employment relationship between an employer and an employee is at issue. In particular, Article 30 of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act expressly provides that the burden of proof is shifted to the employers when resolving disputes arising out of this Act.

Relief and Damages

Article 9(1) of the Fixed-term Workers Act and Article 21(1)2 of the Temporary Agency Workers Act enables discriminated-against fixed-term employees, part-time employees and dispatched employees to file a petition to the Local Commission for a corrective order against the discriminations such employees were subject to. To the contrary, the Labor Standards Act, Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Age Discrimination Act do not expressly provide for seeking relief from the Local or National Commission and, thus, remedies for violations of these acts, including unlawful discriminations, can be obtained through filing:

  • petitions with the Ministry of Employment and Labor;
  • civil lawsuits with the court; or
  • criminal complaints with the investigative authorities.

Separate from the above, an employee may seek compensation for pecuniary damages and/or emotional distress they suffered due to the employer’s discrimination that lacks reasonable cause.

Class actions in Korea are different from class actions in common law jurisdictions. In Korea, class actions take the form of a “multi-party litigation” in accordance with the Civil Procedures Act where multiple plaintiffs file a lawsuit as a single “group”. To the contrary, class actions in common law jurisdictions are initiated by a few plaintiffs who represent a class of individuals, where damages are awarded even to the individuals within the class who did not participate in the class action, provided that such individuals were not otherwise excluded. In other words, under Korean “class actions”, only the individuals who are named as a party to the litigation are compensated or redressed.

With certain exceptions under Article 87 of the Civil Procedures Act, only lawyers may represent employees before the court.

Employment and other related disputes between employers and employees may be resolved privately through arbitrations, mediations and settlements. Moreover, such disputes may also be resolved through arbitrations, mediations and settlements administered before the court and the Local Commissions.

Under the principle of private autonomy (ie, freedom of contract), pre-dispute arbitration agreements regarding disputes relating to working conditions, etc are, as a principle, effective if they are included in the employment contracts. At the same time, labour laws, including the Labor Standards Act, are considered as mandatory provisions that cannot be avoided via contracts. Therefore, any agreement that excludes such labour law provisions or is less favourable to the employees compared with labour law provisions are invalid.

Article 98 of the Civil Procedures Act imposes the cost of the lawsuit upon the losing party. As such, the losing party, as a principle, is responsible for the litigation fees. Conversely, attorney’s fees are divided between the parties in accordance with Article 3 of the Rules on Calculation of the Attorney’s Fees.

Yoon & Yang LLC

ASEM Tower
517 Yeongdong-daero
Gangnam-gu
06164
Seoul Korea

+82 2 6003 7000

+82 2 6003 7800

yoonyang@yoonyang.com www.yoonyang.com
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Lee & Ko was founded in 1977 and is one of the largest and most trusted law firms in South Korea. The firm has over 750 professionals, including advisers, accountants, experts and consultants, and is organised into more than 40 specialised practice areas. Lee & Ko maintains offices in Seoul, Beijing, and Vietnam. Lee & Ko practises a “One-Firm Philosophy” where its professionals and practice groups co-operate seamlessly and efficiently to continuously improve and provide clients access to the full force of the firm. The firm's employment practice group has over 25 attorneys. The scope of services includes individual employment contract reviews, helping clients draft and establish entirely new business operations in Korea, individual terminations, layoffs, internal investigations, and labour-management disputes and strategies. Lee & Ko represents clients worldwide, including multinational companies in global industries including automobile, finance, services, manufacturing, apparel, aviation, food and beverages and electronics, to name a few.

Changes in South Korean Labour Statutes and the Resulting Effects

The National Assembly of Korea passed some major legislative amendments to multiple labour statutes, embarking on one of the more extensive labour/employment law reforms the country has seen in recent years. And the effects of these changes have begun to appear gradually, and occasionally in unexpected ways.

Finalising the adjustment to the 52-hour workweek

Working hours shall, in principle, not exceed 40 hours per week or eight hours per day, excluding recess hours (ie, minimum of 30 minutes for every four hours of work, resulting in a typical one-hour recess for every standard eight-hour workday). And suppose the parties concerned reach an agreement (an employment contract whereby the employee agrees to work overtime as necessary will suffice). In that case, the working hours may be extended by up to 12 hours per week, for a total of 52 hours per week.

This 52-hour workweek has been applied progressively depending on the employer’s size, and from 1 July 2021, employers with fewer than 50 employees are finally required to adhere to the 52-hour workweek. Notwithstanding, in recognition of the potential difficulties faced by small business owners who might need employees to work longer hours or cannot afford additional hires, Article 53-3 of the Labor Standards Act (LSA) allows employers with fewer than 30 employees to require eight overtime hours per week additionally (based on an agreement with the employee representative) until 31 December 2022 (the “Extension”).

The Extension is temporary, and therefore, all employers in Korea must begin to finalise any last adjustments to their workforce to comply with the 52-hour workweek.

Introduction of greater work-hours flexibility to mitigate the impact of the 52-hour workweek

Prior to the recent legislative amendments, flexible work hours systems (ie, employers could require employees work for more than 40 hours per week, per agreement with the employee representative, so long as the average work hours per week was 40 hours without any one week exceeding 48 hours/week) were limited to up to three months. However, effective 6 April 2021 (1 July 2021 for workplaces with five to 49 employees), employers can now implement a flexible work hours system for up to six months; provided that, the average work hours per week remains no more than 40 hours without any one week exceeding 52 hours/week or 12 hours/day – in addition to other procedural and substantive requirements (eg, employer must guarantee at least 11 hours between the end of a work day and the start of the next work day, and notification of the daily work schedule to the employee representative by no later than two weeks before the start of the workweek).

Furthermore, prior to the recent legislative amendments, selective work hours systems (ie, employers could offer employees with a choice, per the applicable Rules of Employment and agreement with the employee representative, to determine their start and end times so long as they work a pre-determined period during a workday. Each selective work hours system was limited to one-month spans and required employers to re-initiate the procedure to implement the selective work hours system for consecutive months. However, effective 6 April 2021 (1 July 2021 for workplaces with five to 49 employees), employers can now extend the selective work hours for up to three months in the case of new product launches or new technique research, provided that, the average hours per week remains within 40 hours per week and eight hours per day.

Furthermore, amongst other procedural and substantive requirements, employers must guarantee at least 11 hours between the end of a workday and the start of the next workday in the case of such selective work hours, and employees are entitled to additional pay for the hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week if the weekly average hours (calculated every month) exceed 40 hours per week.

Employers can capitalise on these changes to the work hours systems to counter not only the limitations imposed by the 52-Hour workweek, but also the dynamic work hours need in the time of COVID-19.

Greater protections for employees against wrongful disciplinary actions (including termination) (effective 19 November 2021)

There are two vital components to the changes in employee protections in this regard.

  • Prior to the amendment, the Labor Relations Commission (LRC) would dismiss a case if there was no remedy for which relief can be sought (eg, reinstatement in the case of termination or reassignment). After the amendment, the LRC will not dismiss the case and instead can award damages (likely expectation damages (for example, back pay if the disciplinary action did not occur)).
  • Prior to the amendment, the LRC could levy up to KRW20 million per levy and up to four times against any employer who refused to comply with an LRC decision (even if the employer appealed properly) (ie, a potential total of up to KRW80 million). Following the amendment, the LRC can levy up to KRW30 million per levy and up to four times (ie, a potential total of up to KRW120 million).

Additional venue for relief for employees against discrimination (effective 19 May 2021)

Prior to the amendment, employees had no relief against gender discrimination during hiring or an employer’s failure to uphold obligations regarding workplace sexual harassment. After the amendment, employees can seek corrective orders against employers for these issues to the LRC.

Any unfavourable treatment against an employee for filing such an LRC claim may result in a criminal fine up to KRW30 million or imprisonment up to three years.

If the LRC upholds an employee’s challenge, the LRC can issue a corrective order (to cease, to update policies – in the case of workplace sexual harassment, to take protective measures, cease any disadvantageous treatment, etc). Failure to comply may result in up to KRW100 million in administrative fine.

Greater protections against industrial accidents and occupational injuries by imposing heavy sanctions on employers (and individuals personally responsible)

Employers must comply with all safety and health obligations and are required to subsidise annual medical check-ups and be required to compensate for occupational injuries. Employers must also report industrial accidents and keep a record of all industrial accidents at the workplace.

Employees may seek benefits under the Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance by filing a claim to the Korea Workers’ Compensation and Welfare Service (COMWEL). If so, employers are required to co-operate with COMWEL’s investigation to determine whether the employee would be entitled to benefits under the national insurance.

To provide greater protection for employees, under the newly enacted Major Accident Punishment Act (MAPA) (effective on 27 January 2022), an applicable accident is recognised as a “Major Industrial Accident” if it involves:

  • death of at least one person;
  • injuries to at least two persons or more requiring at least six months of recovery; or
  • at least three persons or more experiencing the same type of work-related illness (to be enumerated in the forthcoming Presidential Decree) attributable to the same cause within one year period.

Employers are required to:

  • establish safety/health management protocol (eg, personnel, budget) to prevent accidents and enforce the protocols;
  • establish accident response plans in cases of an accident and execute the plans to prevent a further accident;
  • take measures in accordance with orders issued by administrative agencies and municipalities; and
  • take measures required in accordance with the statutory requirements relating to occupational safety and health.

The exact scope of the above requirements is expected to be elaborated in the forthcoming Presidential Decree.

Under the MAPA, a major industrial accident that is attributable to the business owners, companies or their officers’ breach of duty to provide a safe workplace is as follows.

  • Results in death of the employee. The representative director (or other officers) of a company can be subject to one to 45 years of imprisonment and/or a criminal penalty up to KRW1 billion, and companies can be subject to a criminal penalty of up to KRW5 billion.
  • Results in non-fatal major accidents. The representative director (or another officer) of a company can be subject to up to seven years of imprisonment or a criminal penalty up to KRW100 million, and companies can be subject to a criminal penalty up to KRW1 billion.

Unclear scope of workplace harassment

In the face of COVID-19 and the economic disruptions caused thereby, employers continue to scramble to find ways to streamline their operations in Korea and proactively reduce costs, increase efficiencies, and ensure legal compliance to protect the company’s interests better. In response to these perhaps inevitable measures, as can be seen above, Korea has instructed various measures to protect employees. And, as a result, Korea has seen a rise of employees becoming more knowledgeable about the employment laws, becoming more tactful and contentious, and increasingly challenging employer measures. But, in so doing, employees may have exposed an emerging reality of the current Korean employment laws where legislations that were introduced primarily to serve as a shield for employees are being used – perhaps even abused – by employees as weapons against what should be considered as reasonable and justified management rights of the employer.

An example scenario

Imagine the following scenario.

An employee of a multinational corporation is suspected of misappropriating the company’s trade secrets to a competitor and conspiring with other employees to transfer to the said competitor in a systematic and scheduled series of exits. Having credible and ample evidence of reasonable suspicion, the company began a good faith internal investigation with the help of external counsel against one particular employee, whom the company believes as posing a greater risk and having wider access to the company’s confidential information. However, hiding behind various statutory benefits and protections, the employee began to resist.

To prevent interviews, the employee takes their annual leave, relying on the fact that the LSA does not allow an employer to reject an employee’s request to take leave, absent a likelihood of a significant business disruption. When the employee used all of their annual leaves, the employee applies for their contractual sick leave, arguing that the company’s efforts to communicate with him and scheduling interviews with external counsel caused mental and physical harm. Once again, per the company’s policies, the company may have no choice but to grant the sick leave when the employee produced a rudimentary doctor’s note.

In response and to protect its interests, the company then places the employee on paid administrative leave to restrict access to the company’s information network and demands the return of the company’s laptops and storage devices. However, the employee challenges the administrative leave as unjustified and argues that the company, abusing its superior position, was unlawfully excluding them from work by placing them on administrative leave, thus engaging in potential workplace harassment.

Notwithstanding, the company serves the employee with a notice of disciplinary hearing to provide them with an opportunity to discuss investigation findings and present their case. But the employee refuses to appear in person. Instead, the employee demands that the company allow them to submit a written statement because they would suffer from mental and emotional stress if required to appear in person. The employee further argues that the continued insistence by the company to meet with them directly for a disciplinary hearing constituted workplace harassment because the company was abusing its position and authority over them and inflicting harm beyond the reasonable scope of employment.

Changes in employer actions

Perhaps in 2017 or 2018, the employer’s actions above may appear unremarkable. However, in 2021, the employer’s actions may be challenged as workplace harassment by subjecting the employee to emotional and mental stress, notwithstanding that the investigation concerned the employee’s potential misconduct.

Korea’s anti-workplace harassment legislation was introduced as amendments to the LSA in 2019 with the intent to eliminate workplace harassment from Korea’s work environments following a series of socially impactful incidents involving executives of major Korean conglomerates physically and verbally abusing employees. Through Article 76-2 and Article 76-3 of the LSA, the LSA stipulated three elements that constitute workplace harassment:

  • an action that causes physical or mental suffering or results in the deterioration of the work environment (ie, results in harmful effects or impacts that caused the employee to be unable to work fully);
  • an action which is beyond the appropriate scope of work; and
  • an action which is a result of the actor’s taking advantage of a superior rank against the victim(s).

Defining workplace harassment

However, despite guidelines from the MOEL that provided general examples of what constituted “workplace harassment,” the boundaries of the definition remained unclear. Therefore, an increasing number of employees are capitalising on this gray area of the law by going as far as alleging that any actions or measures taken by an employer which the employee does not agree with constitutes workplace harassment.

The MOEL continues to take a conservative stance on determining whether an action constitutes workplace harassment. Therefore, employers are advised to review their approach during any potentially contentious engagement with the employee, especially with regard to procedures and communications regarding internal investigations and/or disciplinary procedures.

Lee & Ko

Hanjin Building
63 Namdaemun-ro
Jung-gu
Seoul 04532
Korea

+82 2 772 4000

+82 2 772 4001

William.kim@leeko.com www.leeko.com
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Yoon & Yang LLC has an employment and labour practice group that consists of 22 attorneys and other professionals who all concentrate solely on employment issues. The types of issues that the practice group has recently represented are illegal worker dispatches, discriminations among different types of workers, implementation of performance-based salary systems, protection of non-regular workers and ordinary wage issues. The firm's key areas of practice are general HR issues – including performance-based salary systems, labour union activities, collective bargaining agreements and disciplinary regulations – employment issues in M&A, employment issues on corporate restructuring, and representation in labour disputes in civil, criminal and administrative proceedings.

Trends and Development

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Lee & Ko was founded in 1977 and is one of the largest and most trusted law firms in South Korea. The firm has over 750 professionals, including advisers, accountants, experts and consultants, and is organised into more than 40 specialised practice areas. Lee & Ko maintains offices in Seoul, Beijing, and Vietnam. Lee & Ko practises a “One-Firm Philosophy” where its professionals and practice groups co-operate seamlessly and efficiently to continuously improve and provide clients access to the full force of the firm. The firm's employment practice group has over 25 attorneys. The scope of services includes individual employment contract reviews, helping clients draft and establish entirely new business operations in Korea, individual terminations, layoffs, internal investigations, and labour-management disputes and strategies. Lee & Ko represents clients worldwide, including multinational companies in global industries including automobile, finance, services, manufacturing, apparel, aviation, food and beverages and electronics, to name a few.

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