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English teachers complain about certain hagwon

Dec 08,2008

A hagwon in Yeonsu District, Incheon, where one seems to be located in every corner of every block, had five native English teachers earlier this year. None of the teachers, however, had health insurance, according to one of the foreign English teachers, who declined to be identified.

Their plight is similar to many foreigners teaching in Korea, he said. They are, he complained, at the mercy of others.

Two of the five left while three waited to complete six months of work, hoping to get a letter of release, which is necessary for foreign language teachers holding E-2 visas.

But they say the director at the hagwon has refused to give them that release; without it, they cannot move to another employer in the country until their visa expires.

When asked whether the teachers are given health insurance, the hagwon owner said the teachers are self-employed, thus he does not have to provide them with health insurance or contribute pension premiums.

But under immigration laws, E-2 visa holders cannot be self-employed or business owners.

There can be consequences from the health insurance Catch 22.

An English teacher from Britain identified only by his first name, Kieron, said he came to Korea after teaching in Japan for one year. He landed a teaching position in a private academy franchise also in Yeonsu District, Incheon.

He said he signed a standard English teaching contract that included 10 days of paid vacation, national health insurance, pension contributions and 3.3 percent tax. About two months into his contract, he became ill. But when he went to a doctor, he found out he did not have health insurance even though his pay slips showed that he had been paying for insurance.

After that incident, he decided to teach in Japan instead and left Korea.

The hagwon owner disputed this version of events, saying Kieron became ill less than a month after he started working so he did not have insurance. The owner insisted he has been paying into health insurance and pensions for all English teachers.

To sort out these disputes takes time, and time - according to the teachers - is seldom on their side.

Several foreign teachers say that not only hagwon, but also a number of private and public schools - including universities - fudge on wages, health insurance and pension benefits. Often they say teachers, like Kieron, realize what’s happening only when they become ill. Severance pay and the standard 10 days of vacation sometimes prove to be nonexistent, as well. Also sometimes missing is the promised free ticket home, some English teachers complain. They also say some hagwon fire teachers 11 months into their contract, avoiding the severance pay that comes after a year’s service.

It is hard to estimate how many hagwon and schools are involved in such practices but numerous complaints are posted by teachers working in Korea on a Web site called Dave’s ESL Cafe (www.eslcafe.com).

To be sure, hagwon owners say the complaints are exaggerated or wrong, and some have their own negative assessments of the teachers.

A hagwon owner in Juyeop-dong, Ilsan, said it is very difficult to find qualified teachers with education degrees. She cited a recent report released by the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education that found half the native English teachers have no background in education.

“We have to pay commissions each time to agencies to introduce native English teachers,” she said. “Many of the teachers come to Korea because they cannot find a job in their own country.”

Though the extent of the problems faced by the teachers is difficult to measure, it’s clear that the current situation is producing many unhappy players. One American teacher, who would talk only on condition of anonymity, said that “no one is concerned with whether hagwon are violating foreign teachers’ rights. Also, the Korean legal system is deeply flawed when it comes to rights of foreigners. While this is mostly true with workers from Third World countries, it also applies to English teachers from the world’s most advanced countries.”

By law, those who work for 20 hours or longer per week are entitled to health insurance and a pension. Normally, employees pay half and employers pay half of monthly premiums toward these benefits. If a hagwon does not pay into insurance or register teachers for insurance, the state insurer can use its authority to force them to do so. But there’s another catch. If the employers had not paid taxes on their employees’ behalf, there is no way for the state insurer to know whether the teachers have been employed.

“If employers do not inform us of employment of teachers, there’s no way for us to check,” said Lee Min-gyu, an employee the National Health Insurance Corp.

Teachers can claim a pension payment when they finish their contract, but only if employers have paid into it. Otherwise, “employees can receive pension only if employers pay the unpaid amount,” said Song Dong-hun, an employee at the National Pension Service. “However, if employers had not signed up for pension benefits for their employees from the beginning, there would be no basis for pension payment.”

Teachers also frequently grumble that insurance, pension and late wage payments are all dealt with separately by different agencies and it’s troublesome for teachers to visit all of them. The National Health Insurance Corp. handles insurance matters; the National Pension Service deals with pension issues and local labor boards are responsible for mediating labor disputes, including wages. There are also language barriers as most employees at these agencies are not fluent in English.

Often, teachers say they find about the problems too late. They realize there is no money in their pension accounts when they are about to quit and leave the country. At that point, the twists and turns can accelerate.

By law, all foreign employees need to leave the country within two weeks from termination of their service. Even if they file a petition at the Ministry of Labor or at the National Pension Service to receive pensions, unpaid wage or severance, by the time a hearing is scheduled they have been forced out of the country.

Although all foreign workers, including teachers, can request an extension of their stay for three months, that is still often not enough time have matters resolved.

“The problem is that it takes time to schedule a hearing. Hagwon owners know that and simply don’t just show up in the hearing,” an American teacher in Masan said. “Then, the second hearing is scheduled but they don’t show up either. If they don’t appear in the third hearing, the hearing will proceed without them. But, by the time there is the third hearing, your extension of stay has expired.”

If the teachers are not in the country, the hearing is automatically cancelled.

To compound matters, foreign workers with occupational visas are not allowed to switch jobs in unless they obtain a letter of release from their employers. This gives hagwon great power. No matter how mistreated they feel, teachers cannot move to another hagwon if their employer does not grant the release letter.

Some English teachers say hagwons warned them if they are fired, they would have to leave Korea and not be able to work in the country for some time. One way to switch jobs in Korea is for a foreigner to leave the country and wait until his one-year E-2 visa expires. Then he can apply for a new visa and work in Korea again.

“Teachers can quit, but it’s difficult,” said a 36-year-old American teacher from Texas, who still teaches in Korea. He said he did not receive health insurance or pension benefits when he taught at a hagwon in 2006. His hagwon in Cheonan also did not pay income tax on his behalf though tax was deducted from his wage. “It is not easy to quit in bad situation because we eventually have to leave the country. It is hard to fight hagwon because of E-2 visa.”

However, the immigration office said there is a reason for occupational visas to have such restrictions.

“It is meant to prevent teachers from moving from one hagwon to another,” said Kim Young-geun, a deputy director at the Korean Immigration Service. “Different countries have different laws.”

“All occupational visa holders need a release letter before they can switch job,” said Kim Tae-su, a deputy director who deals with visa policy at the immigration service. “E-2 visa holders can ask for a release after working for a certain period of time - usually six months. If there are disputes, we need to discuss who broke the contract first,” he said.

Although there is little way of documenting how widespread these problems are, some teachers say they have left them with a bad image of Korea.

The English teacher from Texas said there are still things he likes about Korea but his impression of the country has changed. “Some teachers left the country with very angry feelings about Korea,” he said. “I used to love Korea but I can’t say I love it anymore, because employees are not treated fairly.”

An English teacher from Seattle, who identified himself as James, said he taught at a hagwon in Sanbon, Gyeonggi Province, for one year through September 2008. He said his employer did not provide him with health insurance or pension. “The experience changed my perception about Korea and the hagwon business,” James said. “I still love Korea as a country but not the teaching scene.”



By Limb Jae-un Staff Reporter [jbiz91@joongang.co.kr]






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