A Guide to Severance Pay under Korean Law

[Updated: May 6, 2020]

There was a news report that more than half of the foreign workers in South Korea are not aware of the fact that they can claim for the severance pay.   Yes, Korean labor law recognizes severance pay.  It is being regulated by the Guarantee of Workers’ Retirement Benefits Act(“GWRBA”).  In this article, we will provide you a guide to the general ideas of how severance pay works, who gets it, and how much in Korea.

What Is Severance Pay in Korea?

According to GWRBA, the severance pay is a payment which the employer is required to pay for its retiring or resigning employees.  The reason for retirement or resigning does not matter.  Even an employee who is fired due to his fault can claim the severance pay under Korean law.

Severance Pay Is a Statutory Liability of Every Employer Doing Business in Korea

Severance pay is a statutory liability of the employer.  It doesn’t matter whether an employment contract provides the severance pay clause or not, because severance pay is a statutory right.

The place of incorporation of the employer doesn’t matter.  So long as its employee provides its service within Korea, the Korean severance pay law shall apply to the foreign company.

Severance Pay Is a Statutory Right for Every Employee Working in Korea

It applies to every employer doing business in Korea.  A branch of a foreign company is also subject to the severance pay liability under Korean law.  Even a domestic of a foreign employee who works in Korea for the company which is registered in a foreign country can claim the severance pay pursuant to the Korean labor law.  (We will elaborate on this later in this article)

Who Is Entitled to Severance Pay under Korean Law?

At Least 1 Year of Continuous Service

Under Korean law, every retiring employee is entitled to severance pay, except an employee whose continuous service period is less than one year and an employee whose average weekly working hours over a four-week period is less than 15 hours.

Employee Only

Only employees are entitled to severance pay under Korean law.  The term employee means someone who provides labor pursuant to the employer’s instructions or directions in exchange for wage compensation.  This does not rely on how the contract describes the title of the person.  Even if the contract defines the party as an independent contractor or agent, the person can be classified as an employee when the content of service and how it works fall within the character of an employment relationship.

The important factors for classifying someone as an employee are, among other things, (i) whether the person receives instructions or directions from an employer, so there exists a superior/subordinate relationship and (ii) whether the wages the person receives are of a nature that compensates for the labor he or she provided.

For example, there are many cases where the Korean court ruled that the foreign English teachers in Hagwon or school are the employees who are entitled to severance pay, so long as they provide their service under the direction of the Hagwon.

Valid Working Visa or Korean Citizenship Are Not Required

The nationality of the employee doesn’t matter.  Foreigners have the same right of severance pay as domestic people.  Even illegal foreign workers are entitled to severance pay.

How Is Severance Pay Calculated in Korea?

The amount of severance pay should be determined by the agreement between the employer and the employee.  However, it is common that the employers provide the minimum severance package under GWRBA.

30 Day’s Average Wage

Under GWRBA, an employee is entitled to receive a severance payment at the rate of 30 days’ “average wage” for each “continuous year of service.”

In the calculation of the “average wage”, a base salary, and other payments such as overtime payment, position allowance, incentive allowance paid to all employees to promote efficiency shall be included.

With respect to the bonus payment, if it was paid irregularly and one-time out of the company’s profit, it shall not be included.

Continuous Year of Service

Regarding the “continuous year of service”, the Korean courts have held that it means the period from the time of execution of an employment contract to the time of employment termination.

If an employee, however, was absent from work for a certain period of time during the “continuous years of service”, such as taking personal leave for study or serving in the military, those non-employment periods shall be excluded from the “continuous years of service”.

Internal transfer with the same company doesn’t count as a discontinuation of the service.  Lateral transfer with a group company could raise some complicated issues regarding whether the employer should pay the severance.  Generally speaking, if the current contract is terminated and the employee becomes relieved from the supervision/direction of the current employer, the current employer should pay the severance.  If not, the employment is deemed extended and the employee will be paid off the severance when the contract is finally terminated.

Severance Pay Should Be Given Even When The Employment Contract Is Governed By the Foreign Laws

So far we have explained the severance pay under the Korean law.  For someone who is familiar with contract law, however, it would be questionable whether the employer can circumvent the severance pay liability by using a foreign governing law clause in its employment contract.

For example, a U.S. based company enter into an employment agreement with its staff working in Korea.  The U.S. company can put a contract clause which designates the U.S. law as the governing law of the employment relationship.  As the U.S law, not a Korean labor law, shall apply to this contract relationship, can the U.S employer argue that it is exempted from the severance pay liability under the Korean law?  The answer is No.  The employer can still get a severance pay pursuant to Korean labor law, even if the contract is governed by foreign law which doesn’t recognize severance pay.

The Korean law prohibits the employer from circumventing its severance pay liability by exercising the choice of law.  According to Korean law, even though the employer and employee mutually choose the law of the foreign country as the governing law, the employee is still able to enjoy the rights and protections under the mandatory rules of Korea where his workplace is located.  The Korean courts interpret the rules and regulations regarding the severance pay are the mandatory rules.  Thus, the employee is still entitled to severance pay under Korean law regardless of what their employment contract says about the governing law.

Actually, our office had successfully represented foreign employees regarding this matter.  The client worked in Korea for a multi-national company.  The foreign company introduced a scheme to circumvent the severance payment under Korean law.  They designated the Hong Kong law as the governing law of their contract and had their staffs in Korea enter into a contract with a paper company in Hong Kong.  The Korean court held that the Korean severance pay law should be applied regardless of the employer’s choice of Hong Kong law so long as the employees provide their services in Korea.  And then the court ordered the company to pay the severance pay and interests thereof.

How to Collect Unpaid Severance Pay in Korea

There could be many reasons for a Korean employer not to pay your severance pay.  In any case, you should better have a consultation with a Korean lawyer to understand your rights and how to collect your claim efficiently.

As unpaid severance pay is a debt of Korean employer, the general process of debt collection applies to the severance pay in Korea. In addition to that, you may bring the case to your local labor board.

Read More: Korean Lawyer Explains Debt Collections In South Korea – Overview

In this regard, please note that there are many ‘labor attorneys’ who are actually not a lawyer.  Labor attorney is a quite misleading interpretation of Korean occupation ‘노무사(nomusa)’.  Lawyer or attorney in Korea is called ‘변호사(byonhosa)’.  Nomusa is a person with a license to provide legal review and assistance in a labor matter, but they are not a lawyer.  For example, they can’t do representation at the court.

If you have any questions about the Korean severance pay matters and want to speak directly with our Korean qualified English speaking lawyer, please click the contact button below.  A real Korean lawyer, not a U.S. attorney hired by a Korean lawyer nor just an English speaking staff, will help you competently.

Also, you can find a stack of legal information and articles on Korean labor law, written by a Korean licensed lawyer, by clicking here.

© 2020 All rights reserved.

Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein, which may or may not reflect the most current legal development, may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

12 Comments

  1. Hi,
    My employer states that, because his business is registered as a Korean branch from a Singaporean entity, he has no obligation regarding the severance payment. Does it make sense to you?
    Regards.

  2. Pingback: today news online
  3. Hello, I am working for a private academy and my contract that I signed states the dates November 29, 2010 to November 28, 2011. My boss is refusing to give me severance pay because they say I didn’t start working for them until January 3. When I gave them my letter for a 60 day notice they did not inform me that they would not be giving me my money or a flight ticket home.
    Also, I feel they have broken the contract as they have not paid me on time three different months. In the contract it states they shall pay in full on the 7th of every month and my bank statements show that they have been late. Please, help me with this conflict.

  4. I am teaching to my institutes for almost 3 years now but in our academy we just have 3 employees.Am I entitiled for a severance pay?

  5. If a contract states that there will be no severance, and a teacher signs it, is this legal? The reason I ask is that we have some schools that want to exclude severance or pension. I’d like to be sure if they can do this or not.

      1. Thank you! And, what about if they’re not mentioned as an “employee” in the contract, but an “instructor” working for an “institution”? Would it still be illegal?

        Is it okay for a school to not offer pension?

      2. Thank you! What about if the contract states that you are an “instructor” working for an “institution” and not an “employee”? Is is legal then?

        Also, is it legal to NOT offer pension?

        Many Thanks!

  6. Article 34 of the LSA notes that: “The retirment allowance system which an employer pay retiring workers retirement allowances shall be in accordance with the Guarantee of Workers’ Retirement Act.

  7. Thanks! I myself had always referred to the severance clause in the LSA when making arguments with the Labor Board or talking about severance with other teachers. Now I know better.

Leave Your Comment