Introduction

In recent years, South Korea has experienced a proliferation of worker categories that – due to the nature of their duties and services – have placed certain workers beyond the reach of protections provided by employment and labour laws. One such worker category is 'emotional labour workers' (ie, individuals who provide 'emotional labour' where they must suppress their genuine emotions and demonstrate organisation-approved emotions when performing their duties, often when interacting with customers). Emotional labour workers are known for having to endure psychological and emotional distress as part of their work, which can lead to depression and other adverse mental and physical health conditions. Examples of emotional labour workers include customer service representatives and call centre staff.

In recognition of the hardship faced by emotional labour workers, there have been increasingly audible calls to improve their working environment, which has led to a view that employers must take proactive steps to protect the health and wellbeing of such employees. However, purely employer-driven measures have provided limited improvements while legislative changes have been insubstantial.

On March 30 2018 the National Assembly of Korea passed legislative amendments (effective on October 18 2018) to the Occupational Safety and Health Act which seek to protect emotional labour workers. The amendments specifically impose a responsibility on employers to protect the health of their employees who are engaged in emotional labour.

The main aspects of the legislative changes are summarised below.

Amendments

Duty to protect employee health Employers must take necessary measures to prevent workers who sell products or provide services to customers in person or via other communication channels from suffering health problems from abusive acts of customers or clients. 'Abusive acts' include verbal or non-verbal violence as well as any other acts that cause an unreasonable degree of physical or emotional harm.

The law does not yet define the measures that employers must implement. However, more guidance is expected through changes to the Enforcement Regulation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in the coming months.

Duty to provide relief Employers must take necessary measures to provide relief for employees who have suffered health problems as a result of the abusive acts of customers or clients. Examples of such relief measures include:

  • granting temporary suspension from the relevant work; or
  • full reassignment.

Further measures are expected in the upcoming changes to the Enforcement Regulation.

Failure to take the necessary measures may result in an administrative fine of up to W10 million (approximately $10,000) and affected workers may request relief measures if they suffer abuse from clients or customers.

Further, employers may not terminate or take any action to disadvantage a worker because such relief was requested. If an employer is found in violation of the act, they face imprisonment of up to one year or a criminal fine of up to W10 million (approximately $10,000).

Comment

The latest changes to the Occupational Safety and Health Act will likely affect businesses in the service industries, especially those employing workers whose duties involve regular emotional labour. If companies employing emotional labour workers fail to implement measures designed to protect employees from this specific type of injury, there may be an uptick in the number of collective civil claims and criminal complaints against employers alleging violation of the new statutory rules.

Following the recent amendments, employers are advised to make necessary adjustments by:

  • assessing the occupational environment of workers to understand areas for improvement; and
  • preparing response manuals to protect workers and to handle related contingencies before the new rules come into force.

For further information on this topic please contact Sang Hoon Lee or William Woojong Kim at Lee & Ko by telephone (+82 2 772 4000) or email (sanghoon.lee@leeko.com or william.kim@leeko.com). The Lee & Ko website can be accessed at www.lawleeko.com.

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