Fondled and cussed out: In Korea, it’s part of a day’s work for many women

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Many – if not most— South Korean women consider sexual harassment and other workplace abuse from men to be a normal part of the job. Many women feel like second-class citizens in a country where the right of men to abuse and harass women remains ingrained in corporate cultures. Indeed, 80 percent of Korean working people say they’ve experienced sexual harassment  at work. Such remains the case despite the nation’s push to boost tourism and promote itself as a modern nation.

“Jenny,” not her real name, says her workday often includes getting cursed out — in front of other staff and customers — and told the Korean equivalent of “fuck you” by older male coworkers.

She used to go home crying all the time, but now she says it’s just part of the job.

“I used to cry every day after work. Now I used to it. But my (female) coworkers cry,” says Jenny, who is in her mid-20s and a Seoul native.

At times, she also gets fondled at after work gatherings by managers old enough to be her father.

It’s all part of a regular work day for her and many women in Korea. Critics say the country’s lightning fast Internet speeds, upscale shopping districts and appearance of ultra-modernity mask a dark underside that foreign tourists and short-term visitors often do not see. Namely, that sexual harassment and bullying of women by men is ingrained in the nation’s corporate culture. Critics say this is an extension of Korean society in general.

Even amid a government push to promote Korea as a modern nation and boost tourism, women nationwide continue to suffer daily from such abuse. As a good employee, Jenny is expected to take it.

Jenny works for a leading hotel in one of Seoul’s central downtown areas, where tour groups and business travelers from China, Japan, Europe, the United States and myriad other countries book rooms daily.

She says she uses her language skills on a daily basis – fluent English, Arabic and French. She spoke to Borderless on condition of anonymity, and on condition that the name of her work place not be revealed. She adds more value to the company, especially in terms of language skills, than many senior male employees. But that doesn’t matter in Korea, where most companies are run by impenetrable old boys’ clubs, she says.

Jenny was recently fondled and groped at an after-work dinner party by one mid-ranking male employee, who grabbed her from behind by the waist, she says. His excuse later was that he was drunk and doesn’t remember. The company took no disciplinary action — a common non-response in Korea, where women are embarrassed to discuss sexual harassment in the open, she says.  In the U.S. and other developed nations, he’d likely be fired – and possibly sued. Jenny has opted to simply stay away from him.

Often she and her female coworkers are screamed at and cursed at in public as they stand behind the front desk. The scene is a frequent and very public humiliation in front of dozens of customers and other staff. Some male employees scream at Jenny and her all-women team so loudly that they can be heard outside the lobby. The abuse even comes from low-level male employees who make far less money than she does, such as janitors, Jenny says.

One of her male abusers unleashes a tirade of aggression a few times a week – at times screaming so close to her face she can feel his saliva spraying her in the eyes. He has screamed at her the Korean equivalent of “fuck you” and other insults, and at times became so aggressive she thought he’d punch her, she says.

The reasons for the bullying are often trivial, such as once when she asked a doorman not to smoke near the hotel entrance on his break. Or once when she asked – politely, she says – a middle-aged male janitor to do a better job cleaning the floor of one of the restroom lobbies.  These low-level, middle-aged, male employees perhaps didn’t want to be told what to do by a woman young enough to be their daughter, she surmises.

Such abuse of women is widespread in modern Korea, and occurs as the income gap between rich and poor grows wider, and as a growing number of frustrated, low-income men find it increasingly hard to make ends meet. It also occurs amid what observers and media say is an increasing level of misogyny in an already male-dominated society.

Indeed, from January to August 2015, women were almost 90 percent of violent crime victims. This was underscored in the recent murder of a young woman who was stabbed to death by a stranger after she rejected his advances. But while the incident stirred an outpouring of emotions and protests, there’s been no major, national effort to reverse the nation’s overt discrimination against women.

The bullying and sexual harassment Jenny has experienced is particularly prevalent in the nation’s hotel industry, say observers, even as the Korea Tourism Organization tries to boost travel to the Asian nation and to promote it as a major Asian tourist destination.

Jenny adds that the hotel’s policies provide no protection from sexual harassment from middle aged male guests.

The all-female desk staff is required to carry water and other refreshments up guests’ rooms, even if they are drunk middle aged men looking to score. Women staff members are sometimes groped as they stand in the doorway to deliver water, and guests often specifically call down to the front desk and request that the prettiest staff member deliver water to their door. Often this occurs during the night shift, when there might be only one staff member on duty, Jenny says.

While no rapes have occurred since Jenny began working there a year ago, such dangers are always in the back of the women’s minds when they work the night shift, she says.

Jenny, who has worked at hotels in Europe, said “no other hotel in the world would make women staff deliver water to drunken guys at 3am like that.”

While women employees have complained to management about the practice, no action has been taken, Jenny says.

Abuse extends much further than the hotel industry, and critics say it exists in practically every industry in Korea. According to a recent survey, 80 percent of Korean working people  experience sexual harassment at work, and the vast majority of victims have no recourse. Around eight in ten said they would simply tolerate it, and official action was only taken in 1 percent of cases, according to a 2015 survey from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, a department of South Korea’s government.

Nearly 80 percent of victims of sexual harassment opted simply to just put up with it, and official company action was only taken in around 1 percent of cases, the study found.

The World Economic Forum gives Korea low marks in terms of gender equality, ranking the Asian nation 115 out of 145 nations surveyed.  That is the largest gap of any developed nation in the survey. While South Korea is the world’s no. 11 economy when measured by GDP, according to the CIA Fact Book, critics describe the country as lagging on gender equality, not to mention the rights of workers in general. It is still the custom, for example, for employees to have to remain in the office until the boss leaves. So even if employees have finished the days work, they have to wait around for the boss to leave even late into the night. Typically no one gets paid overtime, and the late nights put much stress on families.

Jenny and her team of all 20-something women have informed their supervisor about the ongoing abuse, and recently scheduled an official meeting to request that he step in to prevent further incidents of sexual harassment — by guests and employees — as well as verbal bullying. But while the supervisor, a man in his mid-40s, does not personally participate in the abuse, his usual response is to look the other way, Jenny says.  Perhaps he doesn’t want to upset the old-boys’ sense of camaraderie that dominates his and many workplaces in Korea, Jenny guesses.

Aside from gender, age also likely plays a role. Age is king in ultra-Confucian Korea, and even a 50-something man who cleans toilets for a living feels entitled to receive more respect than a university educated woman half his age – even if the woman earns a higher salary.

Jenny says the ongoing abuse is starting to take a toll on her, explaining that she is beginning to “lose pride in myself.”

She’d like to quit. But Jenny fears that any company to which she applies will contact her supervisor to confirm whether she works there – a common practice in Korea. Receiving a call about her could lead the current manager to see her as disloyal, and he could also badmouth her to any potential new employer. In a worst-case scenario, she could lose her current job and have nowhere to go. In sharp contrast, a U.S. company that contacts an applicant’s place of employment without permission can be sued.

In any American hotel, irate behavior like screaming at front desk staff could well be met with a visit from the police, but not in Korea.

Domestic abuse of wives is also widespread in Korea, and is indicative of how women overall are treated. In 2010, 23.5 percent of married women said they experienced physical abuse, and the overall rate of abuse (including physical and emotional abuse) has risen since 2007, according to the 2010 Korea National Survey of Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence.

Despite the nation making great strides in terms of the number of women in university and in the workforce, there are no signs that such workplace harassment will decrease anytime soon, experts and observers say.

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