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Twitter Korea likely to lose legal battle against dismissed employees

Musk-led email layoffs unjustified under Korean labor law, but legal battle will be long, legal experts say

Nov. 10, 2022 - 14:59 By Kan Hyeong-woo
An image of Elon Musk is seen on a smartphone placed on printed Twitter logos in this picture illustration taken April 28, 2022. (Reuters-Yonhap)

Twitter Korea Ltd., the US social media giant’s Korean office, is highly likely to lose a potential legal battle against its abruptly laid-off employees under the local labor law if they decide to file a class action lawsuit against their employer, according to labor experts here.

“Regardless of whether (Twitter Korea) had urgent managerial reasons behind the layoffs, there seems to have been no efforts to overcome them. The employer should have talked to a representative of laborers, but that didn’t happen. There is also a debatable issue with the selection process of the layoff subjects,” said Shin Jae-jin, a labor law professor at Sogang University, referring to the restrictions on dismissal for managerial reasons in the Labor Standards Acts’ Article 24.

Twitter Korea is regulated by Korean law due to the territorial principle, which empowers a sovereign state to exercise jurisdiction over individuals and other legal entities within its territory, according to Shin.

“So from what I have seen, I think (the employees) would have a high probability of winning the legal battle (against Twitter Korea) under Korean law,” he added.

Twitter’s massive global layoffs began on Nov. 4 with a single email, which was delivered to about half of the social media company’s total employees of some 7,500 across the world. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, who took over Twitter at the end of October, said the decision to cut down the social media firm’s workforce in half was because the company was losing over $4 million per day.

At Twitter Korea, about 25 percent of the 30 employees received the same email, according to a source familiar with the inside matters at the Korean office. The source wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The email, obtained by The Korea Herald, read, “Today is your last working day at the company, however, you will remain employed by Twitter and will receive compensation and benefits through your separation date of January 4, 2023.”

Pointing out that an employer in the US is capable of firing an employee for practically any reason as long as they do not violate federal or state laws, Shin underlined that a similar issue could be raised in other countries that have laws to protect employees from being fired easily.

Kwon Young-gook, an attorney specializing in labor law, pointed out that if Twitter Korea did not take the necessary steps for the email layoff to be justified as legitimate job dismissal, this case could be considered unfair dismissal.

“The laid-off employees could take the matter to the National Labor Relations Commission and request for a remedy application of unfair dismissal. Or they could carry out litigation for nullity of the dismissal,” he said.

A certified public labor attorney, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Korea Herald that despite a class action lawsuit by Twitter Korea’s laid-off employees seemingly having decent chances of winning, it would present a long, tough and costly road ahead for them.

“Given that Twitter’s final boss is Elon Musk and considering his personality, the legal battle against Twitter Korea will have to go through (Seoul) Regional Labor Relations Commission, the National Labor Relations Commission and all three trials up to the Supreme Court,” said the labor attorney.

Regardless of how the legal prospects appear, he said Twitter and Twitter Korea could use the strategy of going the distance so that plaintiffs would become worn out and drop the case even before it reaches a final conclusion.

The aforementioned source said the let-go employees have not made any decisions about taking legal actions together. The previous layoff email stated that the follow-up information about severance offers and financial resources extending beyond their non-working notice period would be sent out within a week. The impacted employees have not yet received the second email as of Thursday morning, according to the source.

“(The laid-off employees) will not just sit there and do nothing. Why would they? Rather, Twitter may try to negotiate with some ‘comfort money’ so that they can walk out on their own,” said Kwon Oh-seong, a law professor at Sookmyung Women’s University.

Kwon underlined that this type of layoff is “impossible and invalid” under Korean law, adding that if the laid-off employees file a lawsuit, they would “certainly win.”

Neither Twitter Korea nor Twitter US headquarters could be reached for comments about the matter.