The constitution and laws prohibit discrimination in employment based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and social status. The law states there shall be no discrimination in economic, social, or cultural life based on sex, religion, or social status. Labor laws generally provide foreign and migrant workers the same legal protections as nationals. The law explicitly prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of gender, age, religion, physical condition, social status, hometown, education, marital status, pregnancy, nationality, or medical history. There are no laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of color, political opinion, language, or HIV or other communicable disease status.
The law requires equal pay for equal work when men and women do work of equal value in the same business.
Any business with 50 or more full-time employees is required to meet an employment quota for persons with disabilities (3 percent for government agencies, 2.3 percent to 3 percent for public organizations, and 2.3 percent for private companies). Foreign companies operating in export processing zones are exempt from this requirement.
There was no comprehensive mechanism to enforce all these provisions if discrimination occurred. The law establishes penalties of up to 30 million won ($25,840) and five years’ imprisonment for the chief executive officers of companies that fire women during pregnancy or immediately after giving birth, and up to 10 million won ($8,610) and two years’ imprisonment for failure to provide paid maternity leave. The law provides a fine of up to five million won ($4,310) for companies found guilty of practicing sexual discrimination against women in hiring and promotions. Business owners are subject to a penalty of up to 10 million won ($8,610) for an incident of sexual harassment in the workplace, but harassment itself is not a criminal act.
Any private company or public organization with 30 to 100 full time workers that does not meet its quota for hiring persons with disabilities is subject to a monthly penalty ranging from 710,000 to 1.166 million won ($612 to $1005) for each available qualified person with a disability whom it fails to hire. An additional penalty may be imposed if the employment rate of workers with disabilities does not reach 50 percent of the required quota.
Discrimination occurred against persons with HIV/AIDs, women, persons with disabilities and migrant workers. HIV discrimination continued for foreigners seeking certain kinds of work.
Discrimination against women in both hiring and in employment continued. Women continued to experience a pay gap, and a higher percentage of women filled lower-paying, low skilled, contract jobs. According to MOEL, approximately 25,000 mothers could not get paid maternity leave and stopped working in 2015. Women often faced difficulties returning to the workforce after childbirth. Under the Labor Standards Act, an employer that fires an employee during pregnancy or within three months of giving birth is subject to a fine of up to 30 million won ($25,500), with the company’s executive officer facing up to five years in prison. Denial of maternity leave could result in a 10 million won ($8,500) fine and two years of imprisonment. Enforcement of these laws remained a challenge, and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) launched a Smart Labor Surveillance program to track compliance with family leave policies and strengthen supervision of workplaces that violate leave regulations.
Nationwide there were 150 New Work for Women Centers that provided employment support and vocational training for women. As of September, more than 287,000 women requested assistance from MOGEF in finding employment; among them, 11,000 received vocational training. More than 112,000 women subsequently obtained jobs after receiving training or other assistance from the ministry. MOEL maintained an affirmative action program for public institutions with 50 or more employees and private institutions with 500 or more employees. The program requires these institutions to comply with a hiring plan devised by the ministry if they do not maintain a female workforce greater than or equal to 60 percent of the ratio of female workers compared with total workers in relevant occupations. When the Public Procurement Service evaluates submitted bids, it gives more weight to businesses with effective affirmative action measures.
MOEL reported the number of women in entry-level civil service positions and diplomatic positions continued to increase. The Korean Employers Federation reported a slight increase in the number of female managers in businesses with more than 1,000 workers. A September survey conducted by CEO Score reported, however, that there were no female executives at any of the country’s 30 public enterprises.
The MOEL reported 164 cases of sexual harassment in the workplace between January and June. Approximately 16,000 administrative agencies, local governments, and public organizations are obligated to submit annual plans and ratings to the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family on efforts to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and raise awareness. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family also conducts field inspections and requires additional training for offices that rate poorly on preventive policies.
The Minimum Wage Act excludes “those who clearly lack the capacity to work.” In 2014 the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities stated its concern that many persons with disabilities who work, especially those with psychosocial disabilities, received compensation below the minimum wage. In May the Ministry of Employment and Labor publicized a list of 633 firms that did not meet quotas for employing persons with disabilities. A person with disabilities working for any company with 50 full time employees can request a reasonable accommodation, such as adjusted working hours, and the denial of such a request could constitute discrimination. According to the Korea Employment Agency for the Disabled’s latest report, approximately one-half of the estimated 1.39 million persons between ages 15 to 64 with disabilities were employed.
NGOs and the local media reported irregular workers were at greater risk for discrimination because of their status (see section 7.e.).
Many migrant workers face discrimination and difficult working conditions. The maximum length of stay under the Employment Permit System (EPS) is four years and 10 months, just under the five years needed to apply for permanent residency. Some NGOs and civil society groups asserted this explicitly excludes foreign workers from permanent residence or citizenship eligibility. Amnesty International’s 2015-16 report stated the terms of the EPS make it extremely difficult for migrant workers to seek alternative employment even if they experience exploitation or abuse by their employer (see sections 7.b and 7.e.).
The law prohibits discrimination against informal or irregular workers (those who do not have full-time, permanent employment and who do not receive benefits at the same level as permanent workers) and requires the conversion of those employed longer than two years to permanent status. Nonetheless, subcontracted workers (known as “dispatched workers”) and temporary workers comprised approximately one-fifth of wage workers in the labor force and faced discriminatory working conditions. The law prohibits unfavorable treatment in wages, working conditions, or benefits on the grounds of employment type, but discrimination persisted in practice.
Both labor and business groups complained the two-year conversion provision prompted many businesses to limit the contract terms of irregular workers and accept the cost of bringing in new workers rather than bear the extra costs of permanent employees. NGOs and the local media reported irregular workers were at greater risk for discrimination because of their status.