Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Daejeon - It's not just about the ESL teachers

The recent Korea Herald article over those Daejeon banners offering rewards for information leading to the conviction of English teachers who conduct illegal private tutorials caused quite a stir. The letters are still arriving and contributors to internet message boards are still voicing their outrage.
Having said that, some people have questioned why The Korea Herald should have given up its front page to the story, and why we have devoted so many column inches to an issue that essentially affects so few people.
Well the simple answer to that is; we haven't. This isn't just about a few hundred foreign English teachers in Daejeon.
It has also been suggested that the stories were too sympathetic to foreigners, some of whom may in fact be among those who are illegally tutoring students.
Not true. The Korea Herald does not condone or encourage illegal behavior. But it is important that the law is even-handed and applied across the board, and not selectively where a particular group is frequently singled out for special attention.
It has been a fortnight since we first reported the banner issue, and a week since the front page story where one of the interview subjects actually admitted there were English-language hagwon in Daejeon who routinely ignore labor laws. If Daejeon hagwon are so blase about following the law, who is to say that hagwon throughout the Republic of Korea do not share this laissez-faire attitude. So we are not talking about a couple of dozen hagwon and a few hundred teachers.
According to sources, despite this admission, there has been no crackdown by the authorities. What does this tell us about the attitude of government officials in Daejeon?
Perhaps the immigration office in the city has already shared information with the tax, pension and national health insurance authorities, and they are now busily checking their records to see if every foreigner registered with immigration as a resident and employed in Daejeon is actually paying into the legally mandated system. Perhaps.
So it's not just about teachers, it's about the ability of local government officials to take the initiative and do the jobs they are paid to do. And if the local government workers in Daejeon are so ineffective, then would it be fair to say that officials in other cities are equally gripped by the same lethargy? This potentially has far-reaching consequences for every Korean citizen, and is not confined to the problems of a handful of migrant workers.
For example, Korea's aging society and low birthrate - coupled with the fact that the national pension is hemorrhaging cash - might suggest that pension collection authorities would demand employment information on every individual in Korea - foreign or not - and check their records to ensure that each and every one of those individuals was paying their dues. You would think so. But you would be wrong.
So again, this isn't just about English teachers, it's about the future financial security of retired Korean workers.
National health contributions help to provide better and more affordable health care for everyone, but not all those who should be paying into the system are doing so. That will make health care more expensive for everyone, not just for English teachers whose hagwon directors have decided to unilaterally "opt out" of the system.
The Labor Department, the Seoul Help Center and foreign embassies receive scores of telephone calls from foreign teachers every week, perhaps every day. They are complaining about every manner of abuse at the hands of unscrupulous hagwon directors.
It would be fair to assume that these unhappy individuals are distracted by their problems, and are not giving their full attention to their primary function, teaching the more than 11 million Korean youngsters who attend private education institutes.
So do you really think this is about a few hundred foreign teachers in Daejeon? Think again.

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