Court sides with employee on privacy protection

By Kim Se-jeong

Is it normal for your company to penalize you for refusing to download a company smartphone application over privacy concerns?

One Korean lower court recently said it’s not.

A court in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, ordered KT to nullify its decision to move an employee to a different position after he refused to comply with the company’s instructions, and to reimburse him for lost earnings.

The decision was the first of its kind in Korea, carrying significance as it set a precedent in protecting the rights of workers.

The plaintiff, surnamed Lee, brought the case against his employee in 2015.

He claimed the company had asked him to download an app that his team had developed. The app, designed to measure the quality of wireless communication networks, asked for all of his personal data, including his text messages and his personal schedule, when he looked at the download instructions. But the employee refused to do so.

As an alternative, he asked the company to provide him with another phone to do the test run or to move him to another department where he would not be asked to share his personal data so extensively.

Instead of accommodating his requests, the company kept him on the job pressuring him to change his mind. After five months of this, he was told to stay home for one month for violating corporate rules. Finally he was sent to another position that paid less.

“With the technological advancement which enables the company to monitor its employees in much more diverse ways, chances are growing for basic rights infringements,” the court said. “When the employee has no power as to the extent to which they can share personal data, they should be able to say no.”

The court didn’t view the plaintiff as unreasonable.

“The employee asked for an alternate phone to get the job done or to move him, but the company refused to accommodate his requests, which can be seen as the company deliberately acting to penalize the employee.”

According to the National Human Rights Commission, the number of such complaints has risen rapidly ― from 33 cases in 2011 to 101 in 2015. In a recommendation to the Ministry of Labor in February, the commission said, “devices increasingly make workers slaves to their employers to the point where they feel disrespected and shamed. To address the issue, the government should make businesses follow privacy guidelines.”

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