Thursday, 12 April 2007

Who you going to call?

You're a teacher. Your school or hagwon has just blatantly broken the terms of your contract. After 11 months of dedication and stellar service, the director suddenly accuses you of being a bad teacher, among other things, and gives you your marching orders. He then cheerfully tells you he has contacted immigration, he won't give you a letter of release, and by the way, you have 14 days to get out of town.
Who do you call?
You may be tempted to call The Korea Herald - plenty of teachers have - but the Seoul Help Center is actually your best bet. Or you could try the Labor Department. They have an English language website and there are various other resources on the internet. But if you are determined to fight this through to the bitter end to assert your rights, be prepared. You are holding very few cards and the deck is stacked against you.
First off you have to know your "enemy." Frankly speaking, the hagwon sector has become just too big and too influential. According to some estimates, Korean students spend over 15 trillion won ($16 billion) a year in private English classes. This is based on 11.2 million students spending an average of 1.2 million won a year for classes in hagwons or private English teachers. Korea spent the most on private education in 2006 among the 30-member OECD, accounting for 2.9 percent of GDP.
Given the lack of oversight, the sector has become a cash cow for criminals - or the criminally inclined - and archaic labor laws just make it so easy for them to use, abuse and discard what is essentially a limitless supply of witless and gullible foreigners in search of their "Asia experience."
Obviously, the number of hagwons who do engage in illegal or unfair practices against their teachers are in the minority. But they are a very significant minority.
If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself the victim of breach of contract, then you have to consider your immediate financial situation. If you are short on cash, then to be perfectly honest, in the majority of cases the best advice is suck it in, take it on your chin, and go home.
Sounds tough, doesn't it? Sounds so unfair and even stupid when you consider how harmful this can be to the good image that Korea works so hard to create through its Korean Wave, its cultural exchanges, and its bids to host major events such as the Winter Olympic Games.
But you may be surprised to learn that you are not alone in this frustration. There are plenty of Koreans who feel exactly the same way.
It may also come as a surprise that among the most "frustrated" are junior and mid-level officials at the Labor Department who have to deal with foreign complainants on a day-to-day basis.
"I am so, so sorry," an official at the Labor Department in Uijeongbu said to The Korea Herald. "I see so many foreign English teachers here, but because of the laws, sometimes they blame us and get angry with us."
So, you have lodged your complaint and have been awarded a hearing before a Labor Department inspector. Getting to the office in Uijeongbu is trial enough: an hour on the subway from City Hall in downtown Seoul, and then a 6,000 won taxi ride from the station.
You are tense; the lousy traffic from the station to the office has you on the verge of exploding. You are so anxious to make a good impression. You are sure you gave yourself enough time to get there, but every traffic light is red and the local council chose that day to dig up the road.
Still, you arrive with minutes to spare. Then you are told no representative from the school has shown up. They haven't called the department to ask for a rescheduling and they certainly haven't called you. They just didn't bother to show up. And why should they?
The law, as it stands, does not compel a hagwon director or his representative to attend a Labor Department hearing. They can ignore the notice to attend a hearing with no penalty whatsoever. In fact, they get three opportunities to fail to attend. They have "the freedom" to do this, the official said.
"It they don't come, then we send them a letter with another date for the hearing," the Labor official told The Korea Herald. The Labor Department does not even have the right to ask why the director did not attend, or demand the courtesy of an apology.
"They know they can do this, the bad ones, and they abuse the system," the official said. After three non-appearances the case is referred to the prosecutor's office.
"But then, even if they are found guilty, the fine is so small it is nothing to them," the official explained, "and often the teacher has already left the country because the process takes so long."
If the teacher leaves Korea before the case goes to the prosecutor, then the whole thing is dropped. "All the director has to do is wait," the official said, "it is so easy for them to win."
And with the paltry fines handed out by the prosecutors, the hagwons win even when they lose.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Labor Department inspector assigned to any particular case may appear disinterested, unenthusiastic and perhaps even unhelpful. In many cases, it is a pointless, and certainly thankless, process.
The law, the official insisted, needs to be changed. Hagwon directors need to be held accountable, and the fines for any wrongdoing have to be significant enough to prevent any repeat offenses and serve as a warning to others, the official told The Korea Herald.
"Korean teachers sometimes also face this problem in hagwons," the official said, "but they usually have family support here and obviously have the time to fight the case." So for foreigners, the official told The Korea Herald, the process needs to be sped up.
So what do you do when faced with this reality?
Lodge your complaint with the Labor Department, and armed with a certificate that you are involved in a dispute with your employer, immediately head off to the Immigration Department. If you get to them before your hagwon director, they will put a hold on your visa so you can remain here to fight the case.
The next move should be to contact your embassy and alert them to your status, and the fact that you may require financial assistance. They can help in putting you in contact with family and friends back home and facilitate the transfer of money. But don't expect any handouts, because you won't be getting any.
And then call The Korea Herald. We love a good story.

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1 comment:

Jon Allen said...

Does the labour board publish the names of these hagwon owners that are at fault?
Does the KH keep a running tally of how many stories it's heard and publish the schools names?