Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Are English teachers ready for a union?

The establishment of an association or a union to represent foreign teachers here in Korea is likely to be one of the hot-topic agenda items at the Global EFL Conference from May 25-26 at Korea University in Seoul.
Leading the discussion will be former lawyer Paul Robertson from the online legal advice forum, EFL-Law. About seven years ago Robertson organized a law information session for foreign teachers in Busan. "About 80 teachers turned up to listen to attorneys talk about teachers' rights. At that time the Ministry of Justice had indicated that they would strongly oppose any attempt by foreign teachers to form an association," Robertson told The Korea Herald.
"Over the years we have noticed an increase in the number of legal problems that foreign teachers are encountering in Korea," he said, "We had expected a drop in the number of problems by providing information online and via law forums on the internet. However, it may have been that as teachers became aware of their legal rights, they then took more action and complained more in online forums about the injustices they had suffered."
The abuse of foreign teachers in Korea is by no means limited to isolated incidents. In fact, the situation is so bad that the U.S. Department of State has issued a warning to its citizens who may be considering a move here. "The U.S. Embassy in Seoul receives many complaints from U.S. citizens who enter the Republic of Korea to teach English at private language schools," the warning reads. "The most frequent complaints are that the schools and/or employment agencies misrepresent salaries, working conditions, living arrangements and other benefits, including health insurance, even in the written contracts. There have also been some complaints of physical assault, threats of arrest/deportation, and sexual harassment."
A separate State Department webpage titled, "Teaching English in Korea -- Opportunities and Pitfalls" -- offers this valuable advice, "The key to happy and fruitful employment as a language instructor in Korea is to be employed by a reputable school and to negotiate a well-written contract before leaving the United States." However, reading the website further offers this little nugget of wisdom, "In the Korean context, a contract is simply a rough working agreement, subject to change depending upon the circumstances. Most Koreans do not view deviations from a contract as a breach of contract."
To establish an association the whole hearted support of a sizable portion of the teaching community in Korea is needed, Robertson said, "If we estimate (there are) 20,000 legal foreign teachers in Korea, then an association would need 20-30 percent of them to sign up to be effective."
Any association must comply with Korean law, and must be set up carefully and legally. Robertson said the main underpinnings of an association would be to:
a) Provide immediate help, in English, to teachers who have problems.
b) Make presentations to Korean government authorities.
c) Provide an up to date website that gives the latest legal information in areas that concern teachers, namely
i) Unfair dismissal
ii) Nonpayment of wages
iii) Contract disputes
iv) Pension problems
v) NHIC (Health) insurance problems
vi) Immigration issues
vii) Police issues (interviews and rights)
Reaction to the idea of forming an association exclusively for foreign teachers has been mixed. "If such a thing as a foreign teacher's union materializes, that would be wonderful," wrote a contributor to an internet message board for foreign English teachers here in Korea. "Shady hagwon owners would have to reform their business practices. And good hagwon owners will have nothing to worry about because, well, they're good."
Sara R. Avrams, a teacher and frequent contributor to The Korea Herald, said in theory at least, it is a good idea, and looks forward to, "people acting as a group to resolve the issues that are so rampant in our EFL community."
Another teacher argued that a union would not really be necessary if immigration rules were changed to allow individuals the right to cancel their own visa and get another job if they so wished. Under the current rules, teachers need the permission of their employer and a letter of release before they can change their visa and take up another job.
Refusing to issue a letter of release, the very concept of which some lawyers have determined to be unconstitutional, is often used as a weapon by unscrupulous hagwon directors to exploit their foreign staff, while at the same breaking the law in many other respects, such as not paying overtime, late salary payment, changing contract terms without negotiation, or providing substandard accommodation. The teacher is trapped.
"The Korean government needs to start looking for solutions and visa portability has been proposed and accepted as one of the solutions," another teacher wrote. "Bad hagwon won't be able to retain staff."
The majority of problems arise in the hagwon sector, Robertson said, although an increasing number of problems are appearing in the university and college sector.
"It is hoped that any association would work with the hagwon industry, in establishing a standard contract, and where disputes occur, a quick result via discussions with the school," Robertson said. "It is also expected that hagwon directors may be reluctant to breach laws if such an entity were in existence."
The concept of negotiating with hagwon that blatantly "breach laws" is quite alien to some teachers, and believe enforcement of existing laws, rather than the establishment of a union, would solve many of the problems.
"One solution would be to give the Labor Board the ability to enforce their decisions in a timely manner and to require the pension office, NHIC medical plan and tax office to pursue hagwon for breaches of the law in a timely fashion," wrote one contributor to an English teachers' message board. "The rules and tools are here, but enforcement is weak and fragmented. Before making more rules, they should do something about the ones they have and don't use."
Many E2 visa holders are under the impression that they are not allowed to join a union, but Canadian Jason Thomas is living proof to the contrary.
"Foreigners 'sojourning' in the Republic of Korea are forbidden to engage in political activities," Thomas told The Korea Herald. "Two rather large men from the Ministry of Immigration were kind enough to point this out to me when my joining the union gained attention."
The two gentlemen did not mention union activities, Thomas said, "In fact, they didn't say much of anything, just pointed to the article in the Immigration Law, which I was already familiar with anyway."
Thomas made the headlines, interviewed by Yonhap and The Korea Herald after he became the first foreigner to join the Korean Teachers Union in 2004. "because I understood that if any organization was going to change education, this was the organization that would do it."
Thomas said to his knowledge, the KTU does not currently recruit teachers working in hagwon, but says he is certain that efforts to organize this sector would have the full support of the union.
"I'm certain that if hagwon teachers organize, they will see results," he said. "It won't be easy, the hagwon owners will fight like hell to prevent it."
Thomas said he believes it is something that will happen sooner or later, and sooner is better. "It's fairly obvious that the government is not interested in protecting the rights of foreign teachers. That warning on the U.S. State Department website is there for a reason."
A number of foreign teachers have dismissed the concept of a union as being impractical, citing the fact that many teachers come here for one year and then leave.
But A B M Moniruzzaman, the general secretary of the Migrants' Trade Union, says there is a very good reason why they stay here for a short time and then leave.
"Foreign teachers come here thinking it is a very good opportunity for them, but after they arrive, the reality is something of a shock, and so they leave."
Moniruzzaman said if conditions improved, if hagwon and other institutes were compelled to abide by the contracts they have signed, then these teachers would stay longer.
"The longer they stay in Korea," he said, "the more effective they become in teaching Korean students and in developing the English language education sector."
This is good for them, for Korea and for the students, he said. "The MTU would welcome any enquiries from English teachers who are interested in forming an association or a union."
Hwang Hyeon-su of the KTU's International Cooperation Committee said the MTU is an inspiring example of what can be achieved. "The government targeted the union from the beginning. Yet the union has not only survived, it has won a number of significant victories. The MTU also established a telephone helpline for workers, and it produces a TV news program that covers issues important to non-Korean workers. And many of its members do not even share a common language."
The MTU's Moniruzzaman said his union is willing to help in any way they can. "If the English teachers wish to organize, then we will be happy to offer them any assistance or advice," he said, "We are fighting for the rights of migrant workers, and they too are migrant workers."

KH link:

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Axis Of Evil Tour

"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world," said U.S. President George W. Bush in his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002.
When Bush coined the phrase that was to echo around the world, American Scott Fisher was teaching English at Sungshin Women's University in Seoul. Little did the long time resident and fluent Korean speaker know at the time, but those three little words -- "Axis of Evil" -- were going to have a profound impact on his life, and lead to the publication of a book that most reasonable people would consider essential reading for the current occupant of the Oval Office.
"I never intended to write this book," says Fisher in the introduction to "Axis of Evil World Tour." "When I visited my first axis country, North Korea, in 2002, it was simply out of curiosity to see the North after living for almost ten years in the South."
Two years later, Fisher, then working as an Asia Analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, took the opportunity of a temporary posting to Baghdad. But, Fisher said, his decision was made more to escape the boredom of the Pentagon rather than any specific plan to visit his second axis country.
"It wasn't until Iran, the final country on my axis tour, that I traveled with this book in mind," Fisher writes in his introduction.
And the result is a remarkable volume that gives revealing first-person insights into life in the so-called axis of evil.
Packed full of anecdotes drawn from face to face meetings, and in some cases confrontations, with ordinary people and officials, Fisher takes the reader into a world that so many people have an opinion about, but one that few people have actually experienced first hand.
Fisher said the hardest part of writing the book was trying to avoid all the political partisanship that the term Axis Of Evil brings to mind, especially in the United States. "The whole point of writing about a 'tour' through the 'Axis of Evil' was to demonstrate that reality is far more complex than grossly-simplified ideological slogans and the concomitant political beliefs these slogans engender."
The people in Iran, Iraq and North Korea are not evil, Fisher asserts, nor are they part of some imagined "axis" plotting against U.S. interests.
"On the flip side of that coin though, these places, specifically their governments, are not the gentle, innocent victims of an arrogant U.S. power that many on the left, especially here in South Korea, would have you believe," said Fisher.
These governments, mainly in Iran and North Korea, are international outcasts for a reason, he said. "Anyone who is in need of a reminder of how open and friendly these governments are is urged to visit Pyongyang and try demonstrating against Kim Jong-il, or denounce the mulla-controlled government in Tehran."
Fisher says feedback from his book has been mixed. "I have been called a granola munching tree hugger to a knuckle-dragging (George) Bush-lover. Which I guess means I at least accomplished one of my goals -- not supporting either side of the political divide."
The biggest regret Fisher has was not being able to see more of Iraq. "The security situation, plus limits imposed on Americans working for the government, kept me from seeing much of the country or talking to all but a handful of its people."
Despite the limitations, Fisher's insights from the confines of a military base near Baghdad airport are thought provoking, and in many places, highly amusing. His confrontation with a Marine "bird" colonel is classic.
Fisher is back in Korea, teaching at Sungshin, and eventually plans to return to the United States to get an international relations Ph.D. on U.S. relations with so-called "rogue nations."
For details on how to purchase the book go to

KH link:

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Sunday, 20 May 2007

More Banco Delta Asia

A reader brought my attention to the following article on the Banco Delta Asia issue, and it is well worth five minutes to take a look. The writer is essentially reiterating much what I have been writing on the subject for months, but does it so much better!

For more insight on the BDA scandal visit

And just to show that I haven't “dropped the ball” on the subject, here is the transcript of my Friday report on Arirang Radio.

RH Transcript May 18 with Chris Gelken

DJ: An American newspaper has reported that a U.S. bank is considering stepping in and helping with the transfer of frozen North Korean funds from the Macau-based Banco Delta Asia. Joining us with more details is Chris Gelken from the Korea Herald.
Chris, this is obviously a welcome development – but I am almost too afraid to ask – is it a viable development?

CG: Oh that's the question everyone wants the answer to; can we really get past the funds issue and move on with the denuclearization process agreed to in Beijing back in February.
The Washington Post has quoted a spokeswoman at Wachovia Corporation as saying it has received a request from the State Department – that's the State Department, please note, not the Treasury Department – asking them to help with an inter-bank transfer of funds. The spokeswoman said the bank was discussing the matter with government officials.

DJ: It is interesting that the request would come from State and not, as one would have expected from Treasury who spent several weeks in Beijing trying to facilitate a transfer. Any clue on why Wachovia was selected?

CG: Well, the first thing that springs to mind is because all the others have refused. There is some history, however, Wachovia had been a U.S. correspondent bank for the Banco Delta Asia in the past. The spokeswoman said they take any request for assistance by the government very seriously and try to cooperate whenever possible. But she said the bank would not agree to any request without approval from U.S. financial regulators, so in the end I expect it will all go back to the Treasury Department.
Apparently, according to the report, the State department has reached out to a number of financial institutions but they have been unwilling to involve themselves with the BDA which is blacklisted by the Treasury Department.

DJ: Obviously the U.S. bank will be looking to ensure that there will be no repercussions from helping with the transfer.

CG: Absolutely, the bank's involvement would require some significant waivers from the Treasury department, including a guarantee that the bank will not be sanctioned for its transaction with the BDA. Insiders say, that Section 311 of the Patriot Act does not leave much room for waivers. So we could be looking at a long drawn out process here.

DJ: What has the State Department been saying about the request?

CG: Not surprisingly, they haven't been saying a great deal. Spokesman Sean McCormack declined to provide any details about Wachovia's possible involvement, nor would he comment on the report that State had been approaching other U.S. banks. He did say that everyone wants to see the BDA issue resolved within the laws and regulations of the United States as well as the international financial system.
He said the goal was to get back to the six party talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula rather than be tied down trying to resolve the problem of the tainted funds.

DJ: Obviously the Treasury is deeply interested in this issue, what have they had to say?

CG: Nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. They have deferred all questions to the State Department. A treasury spokeswoman said the request to Wachovia was initiated by the State Department, so you need to speak with them.

DJ: We have all been waiting a very long time to see a resolution to this issue, not least of which I imagine would be the other members of the six party negotiations. Has there been any reaction from them?

CG: Well as far as the Chinese are concerned, we are really no closer to a resolution. Speaking at a press conference today, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said the financial dispute that has stalled efforts to end North Korea's nuclear program remains unresolved despite promising signals. He added that the relevant parties are making every effort to seek a solution, and that they hope to see an early and proper settlement. Its interesting to note that his comments come after Pyongyang said on Tuesday that work was under way to settle the banking row, and of course those reports that State had contacted the Wachovia bank in the U.S. –
So once again we go into the weekend with the status quo pretty much unchanged, the funds are still there, the denuclearization process is still stalled, and the folks who most people see as holding the key to a resolution – the U.S. Treasury – are saying nothing.

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Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Print and be damned?

Korean Libel Laws

A minefield. Especially for internet bloggers. But it is no walk in the park for the mainstream media either.

I have learned a few things in the past couple of weeks while researching an article for The Korea Herald – “Is publish and be damned a wise choice?” (KH May 9). Some of those things, I actually wish I hadn't learned. It has been a frustrating period. The National Security Law notwithstanding, the illusion that Korea has a completely “free press” has taken a bit of a beating.

The shocking fact that “getting it right” isn't enough to protect a writer from a libel suit is rather hard to swallow. Of course, a story has to have value. It has to qualify as being in the public interest – not simply of interest to a gawking, pedestrian public who crave titillating, sensational celebrity stories.

That has never been a problem for me. I don't do “titillating, sensational celebrity stories.” Reporting on documented incidents of wrongdoing can still land a reporter in trouble, if the subject of the report decides that his or her reputation has been tarnished by the article. The idea that people who have been found guilty of breach of contract or of some other illegal activity can convince themselves they still have a reputation to tarnish is beyond me. But then, this isn't Kansas.

The concept of forgiveness for past misdeeds is laudable, and is far more entrenched in the national psyche here in Korea than it is in Europe or in the United States. But when that extends to protecting wrongdoers who have shown no indication that they have any intention of apologizing for and modifying their behavior, then the libel law becomes a useful tool for the unscrupulous and a chokehold on the mainstream media.

The print media does have a very tenuous “get out of jail free card” – if we can prove our facts, and if we can convince the judge the information revealed in the report was in the public interest.

But this is where it gets very subjective. While working on the article for The Korea Herald, a lawyer warned me that exposing English language hagwons that have blatantly breached contract and are attempting to exploit their foreign staff is absolutely not in the public interest. Koreans, he said, have no interest in how hagwons may or may not treat their foreign staff. If I did expose them, he cautioned, they could sue for libel and they would win. I would have harmed their “reputation.”

I mean no criticism of the lawyer who made the comment, I just fundamentally disagree with his conclusion. Was he really suggesting that Korean parents – who in his interpretation represent the real public – have no interest in the emotional state of mind of the teachers to which they entrust their children on a daily basis? To me at least, that idea is absurd. But if he was the lawyer for the hagwon, and if he was lucky enough to find a “sympathetic” judge, well, I might just be looking at a hefty fine and a trip to Incheon Airport.

I have been thinking quite a lot about what constitutes "public interest" and its relationship to journalistic ethics - in the Korean context, but that is something for another post.

The Korea Herald article, “Is print and be damned a wise choice?” can be found on the following link:

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