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Family asks Korean media company CJ to apologise for employee's suicide

The Korea Herald/ANN | Yoon Min-sik | Thursday, Apr 20, 2017

The death of a CJ E&M employee last year came back to haunt the Korean entertainment behemoth, as bereaved relatives accused the company for driving the young man to his death and ducking the blame for it.

Lee Han-bit, a 27-year-old TV producer who had just started working at the company, died by suicide in October just after finishing the tvN drama "Drinking Solo." He took care of production details including costumes, props and meals.

At a press conference Tuesday, the family claimed that Lee was overworked and subjected to constant verbal abuse by his superiors. CJ E&M conducted an internal investigation into Lee's death and concluded that there had been no insults or abuse involving Lee.

"The company refused to allow our family to participate in the probe, and refused to share data that could prove he was being overworked. It also claimed that he neglected his duties, based on nothing but testimonies of his fellow workers who were hostile toward him," the family members said.

Youth Community Union, which is working with Lee's family to find out why he took his own life, said they decided to hold the press conference six months after his death because the family members needed time to cope with it. Tuesday was also exactly a year since Lee was assigned to the "Drinking Solo" team.

The family claimed that Lee was forced to work 53 out of 55 days, while sleeping only four hours a day. They also said that there were text messages on Lee's phone from his superiors in which they curse and insult him repeatedly.

A poster image of the tvN drama “Drinking Solo.” Photo: CJ E&M

"If he was late for work, they (Lee's co-workers) would threaten to make sure he would never work in the TV industry again. When they moved, they would made him carry all the bags," Lee's brother Han-sol said.

CJ E&M released an official statement later in the day and vowed to comply with the authorities if they choose to investigate the family's claims.

"It is very regrettable that a situation like this has happened, even though we have worked with the bereaved family on how the investigation (into Lee's death) should take place," the statement said.

But an official of the Youth Community Union said that CJ had not made any attempt to reach out to Lee's family since the press conference.

"A legal battle is not what we're looking for right now. All we want is for CJ to accept responsibility and provide plans so that it will not happen again. We're not looking to put certain individuals on trial," he said.

"We never wanted money. We just wanted a sincere apology and assurance that a case like my brother would never happen again," said Lee Han-sol.

In Korean TV production, it is customary for newer members on the production team to take care of miscellaneous chores in addition to their duties. They often have to shoulder an immense workload.

In 2008, a 20-something writer for SBS died by suicide after reportedly being overworked.

A 2011 report by Korea Creative Content Agency showed that TV production staff work an average of 10.4 hours a day. A 2016 survey by the National Union of Media Workers showed that a TV writer works an average 53.8 hours a week.

"I was a producer, but I also had to be a writer and record pieces as well," said a former news programme producer at a local channel. "After I quit, I learned that they hired two extra people to do those jobs."

She noted that the pecking order in the TV industry often presents challenges for younger workers. Failing to fall in line with her superiors resulted in a transfer to another department where she did virtually "nothing" until eventually quitting.

"When I saw the news about Lee. I just thought, 'It must've been so hard.' We can somewhat relate to that, as the working environment in the TV industry is very tough," she said. "Of course, what I went through is not nearly as tough as what Lee experienced."

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