Embassy chefs grate over treatment
He signed up for a year-long course to learn more about traditional Korean food and another three-month cooking course specially designed for embassy-chef hopefuls. After passing the tests administered by the Korea Food Foundation and the Human Resources Development Service of Korea, A finally landed his dream job in 2008.
But he quickly learned that being an embassy chef was a job he couldn’t stomach.
“I thought I could promote Korean food, but I was mistreated,” said A in an e-mail interview with the JoongAng Ilbo.
“I had to prepare three meals a day for the ambassador and his wife. If I made casual, light meals, they reprimanded me for neglecting my duties. When I came up with a multiple-course menu, they thought I was wasting their budget,” said A. “Whenever I complained, they threatened to fire me.”
A was so stressed, he lost 6 kilograms (13 pounds) in three months, but he had nowhere to ask for help.
“My coworkers said I should keep my mouth shut,” said A.
Over recent months, other chefs working at Korean diplomatic missions overseas have made similar complaints, uploading photos and stories to the Web about being exploited by ambassadors and their wives.
Most notably, one chef in the South Pacific recently asserted he had been confined and verbally harassed by an ambassador and his wife.
Another chef working at a Korean embassy in Europe wrote on a Web site last month that she had been confined in an embassy and even assaulted with a wooden roller.
“They confiscated all the keys except my room key and the main gate key,” she wrote. “The kitchen is located in the main building, so I couldn’t get access. And I had to live on bread every other day.”
With those disclosures, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has begun investigations, dispatching officials to relevant embassies.
“We will definitely come up with countermeasures after investigating the cases in order to stop the recurrence of such misfortunes,” said an official working in the department that oversees diplomatic offices overseas. “We will also work on improving the labor conditions of embassy chefs.”
The JoongAng Ilbo contacted 20 chefs who used to or are currently working as embassy chefs and interviewed them over e-mail.
As their livelihoods would be at risk if they were recognized, they are identified in this story only by single letters.
Technically, embassy chefs are hired by the Foreign Ministry as contract workers, but in fact they are mostly hired by the wives of the ambassadors (Korean ambassadors are overwhelmingly male).
Contracts are made directly between chefs and ambassadors or their wives. As such, the agreements are controlled neither by the Foreign Ministry nor by the country where the diplomatic office is located. Naturally, the ambassadors’ wives, who are in charge of all the banquets and events, have the upper hand.
Of the 20 chefs the JoongAng Ilbo contacted, 11 of them said they have “no major issues” with their employers. Nine said they or their peers have experienced unfair treatment, including being forced to work overtime, run private errands, having their privacy infringed upon and poor treatment by other embassy officials. Some also said they were treated like maids or they were accused of misusing public money.
None of them, however, said they were harassed or confined, like those two high-profile incidents.
Of the 20 interviewees, the young chefs especially seemed unhappy with their jobs.
“Times have changed a lot, but they treat me as if I’m a housekeeper,” said C, who is working at an embassy in Southeast Asia. “In addition, they interfere on every single matter, from making the grocery list to the maintenance of the kitchen.”
But one additional complaint really set off C.
“When they woke me up in the wee hours and asked me to make a late-night snack, I couldn’t stop myself from swearing,” he added.
“The wives even make lists of the good and bad chefs and share them with others,” said B, who has worked at three embassies. “Because we have to find a new job when the ambassador returns home, we need to avoid being labeled a bad one.”
Many chefs also complained about often being required to do miscellaneous, menial tasks unrelated to their jobs, such as running errands for the families of the ambassadors.
Experts say such treatment is a long-standing issue, in which embassy chefs are treated like modern-day servants.
“Old-generation chefs tend to think highly of government officials, but young chefs consider the relationship just a contract,” said Lee Su-young, a professor of public administration at Seoul National University. “It seems like confrontations between young chefs with high self-esteem and ambassadors’ wives are often a source of trouble.”
But some observers say there are larger issues involved.
Because the Korean government hardly monitors its diplomatic missions and embassies are mostly ignored by the local countries, labor conditions for embassy chefs can be quite unstable.
According to the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea, less than 20 Korean diplomatic offices are inspected every year out of about 203 facilities worldwide.
In addition, 40 embassies opened since March 2012 have never been inspected.
Insufficient budgets also take their toll on the chefs.
Operation expenses allocated to all diplomatic missions this year came to 233.8 billion won ($203.3 million), slightly up from 185 billion won in 2004. But 33 additional embassies have been added over the same period, meaning budgets per embassy are still about the same.
With tight budgets, some diplomatic missions have even been known to engage in illegal foreign exchange trading on the black market to make up for the losses.
Personnel expense budgets at embassies also increased to 78.3 billion won this year, up from 52.7 billion won in 2004, but industry insiders say the rise is still insufficient.
“The average monthly wage of an embassy employee [working for Korean diplomatic missions] is $1,460, which is about half the wages provided by embassy officials of developed countries,” said an official at the Foreign Ministry who declined to be identified.
Korean embassy chefs earn $2,500 per month on average, but that is still low compared to local market wages.
Despite budget issues, ambassadors still want to hire quality chefs, even though they cannot afford to pay extra for overtime.
“I was notified by the embassy from the beginning that they can’t pay me extra for overtime,” said D, who works at a Korean embassy in Europe. “That’s why quality chefs don’t apply for this job.”
Starting 2011, ambassadors have been required to use a labor contract that specifies working hours, holidays and severance pay, but often those provisions are ignored.
For example, the labor contracts at some embassies allow chefs to be placed on a probationary period, when they can be fired without warning, sometimes without even receiving a plane ticket home.
According to the Foreign Ministry, about 10 legal suits are going on over violations of labor laws at overseas diplomatic offices.
“Internal rules sometimes allow flexibility for Korean embassies overseas, but that also increases the chance of employee rights being violated,” said Cho Yoon-jik, a professor of public administration at Yonsei University. “If similar problems keep occurring, then the government should beef up the law to protect people who work for the embassies.”
Looking at other countries might be one solution, other experts suggest. For instance, Japan enables embassy chefs to have their own separate living space outside the embassy, while the United Kingdom recruits chefs through open auditions.
But experts say the most urgent task is overcoming the perception gap between young chefs and ambassadors who still have older ways of looking at their employees.
“Young chefs think they are hired by the country, not by the ambassadors and their wives,” said Lee, the Seoul National University professor. “Changing the mindset is what is needed most.”
BY JEONG WON-YEOP [email@example.com]