Korea’s major corporations may be experiencing some, ahem, growing pains in the United States.
Two women in the United States have filed a lawsuit in a US federal court in Georgia against three companies, including a major Korean company identified only as Company A, and two executives for allegedly firing them after they got pregnant.
The women, who were sent to the big Korean company’s local factory by subcontractor, claim Company A’s Korean manager said pregnant women are a headache to the company and ordered the subcontractor to terminate their contracts. One of the women also said the Korean manager yelled at her that she was incapable of doing her work because of her pregnancy and told her that if she didn’t leave he’d call the guards.
She claims the day after the fight, she was sent to an empty warehouse with no air conditioning or drinking water and with a broken bathroom. The subcontractor said they’d back her up, but instead they fired her after she gave birth.
The two women reportedly brought the matter before the EEOC last year, but earlier this year withdrew that and filed a lawsuit.
Company A, meanwhile, said the lawsuit is nonsense. In an phone call with Yonhap, the head of the company’s US subsidiary said this was a matter with the subcontractor and had nothing to do with them. The stuff about the manager was also one-sided and untrue.
Interestingly enough, the manager in question left the company last year and was excluded as a defendant.
An industry official thinks Company A was included in the suit to increase the potential pot.
This case comes on the heals of another case in Georgia in which Hyundai Heavy Industry’s US subsidiary got sued by a former executive for racial discrimination.
The executive, who is white, claimed he and some other executives were sacked by the subsidiary president, a Korean-American, because they were a) old and b) weren’t Korean. Some 13 executives had their contracts terminated in 2009; of these, 11 were non-Koreans. They were allegedly replaced entirely by young Koreans.
The plaintiff also claimed he felt ostracized by the Koreans, who ate and played golf only among themselves.
The plaintiff lost the case, but as editorial writer Sunny Yang writes in the JoongAng Ilbo:
The head of the subsidiary made racial jokes, and Korean employees had a cliquish culture that excluded locally hired employees. If the suit were filed by a non-white American, would the company have been able to avoid the charge? Hyundai may have benefitted from the preconception held by many in America that Caucasians are traditionally the inflictors of racial discrimination.
I found the possibility that the guy may have been screwed by the racial politics of not just one, but two countries darkly amusing.
Anyway, you can read more about the case (in English) here.
Now, it should be noted here that an all-white jury found in favor of Hyundai. Hyundai argued that for business reasons it preferred employees fluent in Korean and Spanish. It also argued that due to the nature of the company, it would be difficult to conduct international business in English only. One of the lawyers who handled the case told the US edition of the JoongAng Ilbo that the jurors agreed that it wasn’t unusual that, for instance, German would be used in a German company or French in a French company. Or as the Oranckay tweeted:
— Peter Schroepfer 서반석 (@oranckay) September 9, 2013
The Hanguk Ilbo put it thus—the jury recognized that if we consider that Korean was a major language of communication within the company, preference for a certain race was largely unavoidable. Feel free to debate “racism as motivation vs. racism as outcomes” among yourselves.
Nevertheless, some are calling for Korean companies in the United States to use the case as an opportunity to reflect. An official with one major Korean company with a subsidiary based in Atlanta told the Hanguk Ilbo that there have been endless complaints among American employees that the Koreans associate only among themselves. After the case, Hyundai Heavy Industries asked (presumably Korean) employees not to eat kimchi in the office.
I shit you not.
An official with another major Korean company said a lot of misunderstanding occur because family-oriented American employees can’t really get with the whole poktanju thing and that Korean staff were being told to watch what they do and say so that the company doesn’t get sued.
The head of Hyundai Heavy Industry’s US subsidiary, John Lim, had apparently caused something of a stir during a 2011 ceremony to mark the move of the subsidiary’s headquarters from Chicago to Atlanta when he joked that there was a way to tell Koreans, Chinese and Japanese apart—if they look rich, they’re Chinese; if they look smart, they’re Japanese; and if they’re good-looking, they’re Korean. Apparently Georgia’s governor and other state political and business big-wigs were in the audience.
In Yonhap, an official with a major Korean company said there were many cases in the United States of thoughtless words said by executives coming back as lawsuits. He said his company asked executives to watch what they say and do, but this wasn’t working as requested due to what he called Korea’s unique workplace culture in which employees speak candidly when they grow close.
I’ll let you ponder that last line on your own.
Anyway, judging from the reports, I can’t really tell which aspect of American culture Korean companies are rudely awakening to: our dislike of racial and gender discrimination or our butt-hurt litigiousness. Maybe a little of both.