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."

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