Do you know the fate of the “Dobby,” a house-elf who served the Malfoy Family in “Harry Potter?” He never insults his owners and has to do all things the owners’ order, although he was abused and treated with unkindness by them. However, Dobby not only exists in the magical world; he also seems to exist in modern workplaces. College students who have experienced part-time jobs may have met “nuisance customers” at one point or another and acquiesce to their demands, conflating unfairness and depression in their heart, which is “emotional labor.”
Emotional laborers, who should hide their real emotions to satisfy the customers, have long complained of poor working conditions. In response to their complaints, the government enacted and implemented an “Emotional Laborer Protection Bill” on Oct. 18, 2018. As it has been about a year since the bill was enacted, we must ask, “Have their working conditions improved?” The Argus learns about the bill and sees how the work environment has changed since enforcement of the bill. Also, The Argus seeks advice from Lee Jung-hoon, the CEO of the Seoul Emotional Labor Center if there are any loopholes in the bill.
What is “Emotional labor?”
Definition: The labor of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of a job.
Job group of emotional labor: The Ministry of Employment and Labor (MOEL) published a “Health Protection Handbook for Workers Engaged in Emotional Labor,” in pursuit of the protection of emotional laborers. The handbook includes the job group of emotional laborers.
1) Direct contact: cashier, crew, caddy, and driver, etc.
2) Indirect contact: call center workers, etc.
3) Care in person: nurse, nursey teacher, and caregiver, etc.
4) Public service: a government official who handles customer service, social worker and policeman, etc.
Do not all jobs involve emotional labor? If so, can we consider all workers as emotional laborers?
Answer: It is only fair to experience a change of emotion during work. However, the definition of emotional laborers does not include accompanying just a temporary shift of the emotion. We can define one as an emotional laborer if some certain conditions are met. First, there must be another party as a consumer. And the task should have a high percentage of time spent in emotional labor during work. Defining who is not an emotional laborer can help with the distinction of who qualifies as an emotional laborer. For example, let us suppose Group A and Group B work in the same bank. Group A has nearly no contact with customers because they work in a headquarter office like Human Resources, General Affairs. The participants of Group A are therefore not emotional laborers. Group B, in contrast, has direct, heavy contact with customers, and qualify as emotional laborers.
Background of the “Emotional Laborer Protection Bill”
1) The real conditions before preparing the bill
Press reports: Cases of emotional laborers who suffered physical and mental damage raised social interest in the need to protect them. Three cases were brought to the fore:
2) Proposal attempt
Kim Boo-kyum, an incumbent in Democratic Party of Korea, initiated the bill on Nov. 29, 2016. However, it did not pass because the government announced that such protection could be found within existing articles in the “Framework Act on Labor Welfare,” and “Occupational Safety and Health Act.” Also, the authorities pointed out that independent law could confuse existing policies.
Han Jung-ae, an incumbent in the Democratic Party of Korea, reintroduced the bill, which had been pending, and the bill passed in the National Assembly of South Korea on March 20, 2018. Thus, Article 26-2 was newly enacted in the “Occupational Safety and Health Act,” and enforced on Oct. 28, 2018. Now, the Article has moved to Article 41, because of the amendment in 2019.
The bill is as follows:
① Business owner shall take necessary measures prescribed by Ordinance of MOEL to prevent health impairment which is caused by verbal abuse, assault, and other actions that cause physical and mental pain beyond the proper scope, to employees who handle customers in person or who use information and community network and sell goods or provide services (hereinafter referred to as “customer service employee.”)
1) Post a notice or prepare vocal guidance for asking the customer not to use verbal abuse.
2) Prepare the manual for serving the customer and education on such.
② Where the employee suffers from or is likely to suffer from health impairment due to the customer’s verbal abuse, the business owner shall take necessary measures prescribed by Presidential Decree, such as temporarily suspending work or conversion.
Any person who violates paragraph ② shall be punished by an administrative fine not exceeding 10 million won (US$ 8,544.82.)
③ Customer service employees can request the measure under paragraph ② from a business owner and the business owner shall not dismiss or otherwise disadvantage employees by reason of the Customer service employee’s request.
Any person who violates paragraph ③ shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than one year or by a fine not exc eeding 10 million won (US$ 8,544.82.)
4) Thereafter, the emotional laborers’ unspoken stories.
“What has changed since the enforcement of the law is that a notice has been put up stating that customers who swear to employees can be subject to criminal punishment. But there is no prominent change. If we respond to them the same way or avoid them, they immediately file their complaints on our bank website. Every year, the head office picks excellent branches. But, because of the customer’s complaints, our branch’s reputation could be diminished. Recently, a customer came to the window and made the sexist remark, “You look quite ugly and have rough hands for a woman.” Even if the law has been amended, there are still many customers who verbally abuse like this. How can I report them all? I just restrain my anger.”
“The manual that we have used says that if a patient abuses or acts violently against a nurse, the nurse must report it to the senior, and then the senior will pacify the patient. This manual did not change although the new bill was enacted. The hospital still operates as a patient-centered business. When a patient swears at a nurse, all medical workers say, “The patient is originally sensitive,” and act like it is no big deal. Also, because the evaluation criteria for Healthcare Accreditation includes a patient’s satisfaction, we have no choice but to care for the patient to their satisfaction.”
“I did not know that the bill exists. Due to the rising minimum wage, our employer scheduled only one person per shift. Dealing with customers alone is tough enough, but some customers are especially difficult. The last time I worked, a customer asked me to add syrup, but she changed her mind after I completely added the syrup to the coffee. She got angry and then pulled my hair. Other customers in there stopped her, and I eventually met the demand of the customer while crying.”
The Argus: Please introduce yourself and the “Seoul Emotional Labor Center.”
Lee Jung-hoon (Lee): Hello. I am Lee Jung-hoon, the CEO of Seoul Emotional Labor Center. Our center was opened in October 2018, according to an ordinance enacted in 2016 for emotional laborers. To verify and implement the effectiveness of policies related to emotional labor, we work on all aspects dealing with emotional labor. We do research and consulting, educate, counsel, build a network, promote, and conduct campaigns.
The Argus: It has been a year since the “Emotional Laborer Protection Bill” enforced. Is there evidence that the plight of emotional laborer’s working conditions has improved?
Lee: It has been a slow progression in terms of the law working well. Business owners only now have an inkling of the precaution to protect emotional laborers since the enforcement of the law. Besides, there are other delays in having policies appear in each place of business. However, many places of business try to fulfill paragraph ①, including airports, markets, and department stores. But the problem is many business owners took “only” the measures of paragraph ①, thinking their duties are done and not devising better ideas to protect employees. Many business owners still side with their customers.
The Argus: In your previous response, you mentioned the limitations of paragraph ①, so, what are other practical problems that the paragraph does not consider or cover?
Lee: Although a business owner is obligated to fulfill paragraph ①, there is no regulation to punish a business owner even if he violates paragraph ①. It does not ask for anything more in this situation than the business owner’s active effort.
Also, the unjust relationship between the original contractor and the subcontractor contributed to making a loophole in paragraph ①. This is an issue that permeates all paragraphs of Article 41. The original contractor prefers this relationship because it can reduce labor costs and flexibly control the number of employees. It also can deflect responsibility for the industrial safety of the subcontractor because it does not support the subcontractor budget. Therefore, the original contractor’s manuals to protect employees are not applied to the subcontractor and do not support the education and work manuals required for the employees under a subcontractor.
An example is an incident that took place last year at the S department store in Jukjeon-dong, the city of Yongin. The S department store is the original contractor and a branch of SK-Ⅱ is the subcontractor. A customer of SK-Ⅱ made quite a disturbance, stuffing a cosmetic bottle in the staff’s mouth, because the cosmetics she had bought the day prior damaged her skin. The problem was that it took a long time to solve the situation. Because the department store proclaimed that the headquarters of SK-Ⅱ had to take responsibility for the incident, not the department store. Therefore, the department store’s manual did not apply.
The Argus: According to paragraphs ② and ③, we can find that they magnified the role of the business owner. Can these measures assure that the business owner will actively protect employees? Also, what other practical problems do these measures not consider?
Lee: There is some possible difficulty here. If the business owner who violated paragraphs ② and ③ is punished after the incident occurred, then the owner is reported to the labor inspectors who serve under the MOEL; this is not a preliminary inspection. Therefore, it takes time for the workers to be protected before the business owner is punished. There is a limit to supervising all businesses in advance because of the low number of labor inspectors. However, the hiring of more labor inspectors is related to tax and the policy flow and so, this problem cannot be judged rashly.
Also, some workers are excluded from the subject for protection under paragraphs ② and ③. “Workers in special types of employment” fall under this restriction because they are classified as individual businesses; there are no business owners to protect them. Today, as digital platforms are developed, the number of workers in special types of employment has increased. A delivery operator who contracts through the “Baemin,” a food delivery app, and a driver who contracts through mobility platforms like the “Kakao T” or “Uber,” are typical examples.
However, the business owners of such platforms had a blind eye to the workers in special types of employment. They said that they only mediate between customers and the workers through the platforms and are that they not the ones who should protect workers of these types because they did not make an employment contract with the workers.
The Argus: We have heard a lot of news about non-regular workers and part-timers experiencing a high intensity of the emotional labor just because they are not in a regular permanent position. Does the bill not apply to them?
Lee: Yes, of course it does; they can be protected under the bill. According to Labor Standard Act, they shall exchange employment contracts with the business owner, who specifies the opening, knockoff, and payment, in the contract. However, non-regular workers and part-timers who do not sign such an employment contract and are only notified of their hourly wages and task by the business owner are not protected properly. Also, most of them do not know they can be protected under the bill. They need to know exactly what their rights are.
The Argus: What solutions do we need to fully realize the full benefits of the bill?
Lee: The bill has been in place for a little under one year. So, we need to keep an eye on the situation. But the amendment is essential because of the aforementioned problems. In addition to the amendment, all the members of society - including the government, business owners, and consumers – should try harder to protect the emotional laborers.
The government should make efforts to supervise the business owners and places of business in advance. In addition, it should be mandatory to add emotional labor protection education into the education provided to the business owner. Business owners must further realize that the perception of “customer-centered” does not just benefit the business. If they cared about the welfare of their employees rather than listening to some of irritating customers, the employee turnover rate could drop, job performance could improve and it could lead to increased revenue, resulting in a virtuous cycle. “The Hyundai Card customer service center” and “120 Dasan Call Foundation” are good examples of this. Furthermore, consumers should start by accepting the personality and value of the laborers. Remember that we buy only the services with money, not a worker’s rights to be protected. Finally, our center also tries to develop the working conditions of emotional labors such as reinforcing our businesses and surveying on the effect of various policies applied for the emotional laborers.
The Argus: What advice can you give for the emotional laborers and job applicants who can work in the emotional labor fields?
Lee: Emotional laborers no longer have to meet the unreasonable consumer demands. Workers must know and assert their rights. They also should keep in mind that the cost of the labor they serve does not include their emotions. Even though the nature of the job may require them to let their emotions be controlled, self-condemnation is not required in such a situation. Do not forget that your voice plays a big role in moving towards a society guaranteeing your rights.
“Dobby is free.” Dobby got socks with the help of Harry Potter and became free. But what socks are needed for the Dobbies of modern society, namely emotional laborers? If they get the socks, will all the problems be solved? Maybe not. Members of the community should make an effort to understand the feelings of Dobbies and respect their contribution to society. The Dobbies also should be proud of their work and not be buried under the fake emotions which can conflict them. Lastly, they should constantly raise their voices toward society until the day when they can say confidently, “Emotion is close to being free.” comes.
By Oh Ju-yeong Associate Editor of Global & National Section