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English teachers duped by employers in Korea

Photo Credit: Flickr/Marie
James Hyams
Written by James Hyams

Some Hakwons and outsourcing companies for after school programs (ASP) are deliberately deceiving immigration and illegally denying English teachers medical insurance and other employee benefits.

“Some English teachers are being deprived of the rights that they are entitled to as E-2 visa holders because their employers and recruiters are exploiting loopholes in the legal system,” an official at the Korea Immigration Service told the Korea Observer Thursday.

Expat teachers are often not aware of their rights and entitlements.

One source said that when they were offered their current job their employer was very upfront about denying expats their legal entitlements.

“They said, we do not offer health insurance or pension. I didn’t know that these benefits are a legal requirement of the E-2 visa, I just thought it was something jobs offered as an added benefit, something to entice potential employees,” the source says.

“I would warrant most foreign teachers here don’t know. We know we need a visa, we know we need a sponsor, and we trust our employers.”

Another source, who wants to be called Dirk, was granted an E-2 visa with immigration in 2009 but his hakwon employer declared him an independent contractor without his knowledge.

He was then sub-contracted to four schools.

Dirk claims these schools paid his visa sponsor 650,000 won ($585) per month for him to teach there but he was never paid medical insurance.

“I had no idea it was illegal at the time,” he said.

He left this job nine months into the contract after becoming aware that his employer was also not paying tax.

Dirk was granted an E-2 visa but then employed as a contractor in his most recent job that he was forced out of by his employer.

Dirk worked for two separate schools. He does not know which school provided the visa sponsorship but his health insurance was not paid.

A labor advocate for foreign teachers advised that expats in Dirk’s position take a copy of their contract into the appropriate government department with a statement of the E-2 conditions and regulations.

“In the past that was enough to get them registered and on their way, with a bill sent to the employer with a small fine,” the labor advocate said.

Dirk mentioned visa issues to his employer and was then being forced out of his job.

He received a call from a real estate agent asking for the key to the apartment, three months prior to the contract ending.

The ASP provided this apartment as part of the employment contract and created conditions where Dirk would find another job.

He did not receive any formal notifications from his employer or the schools.

Dirk started recording his conversations with his boss and provided them exclusively to The Korea Observer.

“If either of these schools do not sign a contract with us that means you will lose one place of work. So this means you will only get two weeks of notice,” his boss says.

“I think it is better for you to apply for different jobs.”

After Dirk was forced out of this job, his ASP employed a young, North American female who he presumes will also be employed on an E-2 visa but registered as a contractor.

An official at the Korea Immigration Service said employers are no longer required to report income taxes of E-2 visa holders, making it practically impossible for the immigration office to detect the unethical practice of switching English teachers as freelancers instead of employees as promised when reporting to immigration.

“It is totally baseless that hakwons or those who run after school programs can hire E-2 visa holders as contract workers or freelancers,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

“Hakwons or recruiters for after school programs (ASP) cannot hire E-2 visa holders as contract workers.”

He pointed out that foreigners would need a D-8 or D-9 visa and invest at least 100 million won ($89,000) in a company to work as a self-employee.

With a deep sigh he lamented that immigration has no authority over insurance and employee benefit disputes and is heavily understaffed to effectively crack down on hakwons’ unethical business practices.

“If you have been forced to work as a freelancer on an E-2 visa, report the hakwon to immigration so that we can restrict E-2 visa issuance to the problematic hakwon and provide a D-10 job seeking visa to you.”

An official at Seoul Global Center concurred with him, noting that it is mandatory for all hakwons to cover the half the cost of health insurance and other employee benefits.

Lee Tae-hoon, publisher at The Korea Observer, contributed to the article.

About the author

James Hyams

James Hyams

James Hyams juggles several careers including being a journalist and a social worker. James has an avid interest in 'telling it as it is', exposing matters of public interest, and reviving investigative journalism in the new digital era. Testimony to this is his thesis titled: “U.S. Government secrecy and the withering watchdog: Is WikiLeaks the answer?”

  • Geronimos Cadillac

    business ethics and Korea or for that matter the rest of Asia are rarely spoken with sincerity in the same sentence. The legal system here is basically a joke and my only advice to new people is research your prospective employer as well as all conditions which should be in your contract by law. Beyond that making friends with some Korean underworld figures has proved to be most useful in dealing with contract disputes in the past.

  • TheBoss

    This is news? This has been going on since the 80’s. Tourist teachers need to wise up on their obligations.

  • tired of it

    It took how many years for this? I even reported my hagwon to the tax office with documentation and they didnt bother to do anything…a call to the ceo by a lawyer representing 3 of us sure shook things up. One fled the country advised by us embassy, i got out with a lor and one more stayed to make sure the hagwon changed. It is so ridiculous that even the labor board gets bribed sometimes and they cannot keep up with the issues at hand.

    • James

      We’ve finally got immigration admitting that it is an issue and them noting that they are understaffed. It takes many years and major investigations for real change to occur. With sufficient time and resources we will attack this issue with tenacity. If you want to share your story with us we are more than happy to look into it.

  • BusanG

    It has been going on for so long … The government has no incentive to clean up the mess .. In fine Korean style nobody takes any responsibility, it is always someone else’s job!! I could go on.. We all know what is happening… The truth as the government sees it is we are foreigners and have no right to complain about how we are treated as we are guests!!! …
    We are expendable and exploitable. I have been here 8 years and things are going from bad to worse !!!! If the government was serious it would do something…. Yes, they bring laws and legislation but the chances of prosecution are small. The fine is so small there is no incentive to follow the law !!! And then if the owner of the hagwon gets in trouble he closes and opens another in his brothers name etc …

    • James

      Exactly! But, with enough exposure and pressure the systems will slowly improve. I think, in the past, too many people have accepted this as standard practice without challenging them.

    • Ex-Babysitter

      Yup. It’s been bad, always has been bad, always will be bad.

      That’s why the US consulate specifically recommends against coming here to teach English, adding to that that they are unable to assist in any legal disputes that arise from teaching English in Korea.

      We’re exploitable, expendable, and often without any real ties to the community. Why should Koreans respect those of us who come here for perpetual spring break?

      • John Wurth

        Got a link where the US Consulate says they don’t recommend coming here EXB?

        • Ex-Babysitter

          Huh. It’s been awhile since I looked at that page (Almost 10 years now), but as I recall the wording used to be much more ominous. It still doesn’t paint a very rosy picture. Very much, “Buyer beware.”


    • guest

      Nothing will change as long as the teachers don’t unite to form one unified body of voice. It’s obvious to anyone that the usual channels are broken and have been for a long time. Justice delayed is justice denied.

      Korea is still lagging behind America socially. This is equivalent to pre civil rights era where there was open discrimination. “Sorry, not hiring coloreds.” History has shown us, nothing is gained without a struggle. As long as the teachers together don’t want to go through the struggle for change, nothing will change. Sadly, most expat ESL teachers remind me of folks who went along with the discrimination system pre civil rights era because it was the status quo and they benefit from it. Only a few ESL teachers are actually speaking up on this issue.

    • james dooney

      Oh yes you are quite right. Funny how when the shoe is on the other foot, the Koreans would bitch and moan like no tomorrow about things !

  • Kate

    It’s not just hakwons. The first university I worked at told me I would get paid pension, but didn’t pay. And one hakwon I worked at took pension off my checks for 13 months (including my bonus month) but paid into the pension office for only 8 of those months. I suspected this and had it confirmed at the pension office. The workers at the pension office thought it was a big joke. I was so outraged that I asked to see their boss. They simply refused to let me and insisted I leave.

  • Name&Shame

    Last job I had before leaving Korea was at LeeBoyoung in Seosan. The manager named Grace refused to give us medical aid, and after a while we realized she wasn’t paying tax, and was skimping everyone’s tax money for herself. She has fired 6 in a space of one year and is generally a nutcase.

  • Cat

    Immigration is understaffed my ass! They spend most of their time harassing foreigners for outside teaching after their hagwons don’t pay them for months and still claim they are understaffed??? No they’re racist and care only about getting money from fines to foreigners and bribes from hagwons.

  • Bones

    Lots of unnamed sources…you should at least say “source that didnt want to be named.” “A labor advocate for foreign teachers advised that expats in Dirk’s position take a copy of their contract into the appropriate government department with a statement of the E2 conditions and regulations.” A labor advocate that doesnt want to be named? Take it to the appropriate govt depart? But no mention of what that department might be?

  • GNB

    My first year was great in Korea. My boss went by the books and the contract providing me everything I was
    entitled to as an e-2 visa. My second year was a different story. Everything was written in my contract, but my employer refused to pay my pension and health insurance after 3 months. Then I was kicked out of my apartment and moved into a cheap “study room” for the next 3 months. He then fired me after 8 months stating he had no money (which was illegal). I went to the board but no action was taken. It’s a shame that this is prevalent because I really do love teaching in Korea, just in the right conditions. My previous employer still owes me over 6 million won.

  • gn

    What a scoop!

  • DaeguDave

    I teach at an English Village, and have been here for over 4 years. I have always been paid in full, and on time. My insurance, taxes and pension come out of my paycheck, but I always had plenty of money left over for myself. The village pays our housing, either in on-site dorms (which include free Wi-fi, free laundry and a gym) or off-site housing in apartments in town. Bonuses of 1,000,000 to 5,000,000 won are available twice a year. It is a different teaching environment for sure, but I have loved just about every minute of my time in Korea, and have nothing but great things to say about my employer. This isn’t meant to be a commercial, but just to say that it is a very good idea to ask a lot of questions before taking any job.

    • James

      Great to hear a positive story for once! Perhaps you should share where you work?

      • DaeguDave

        Well, as I said, I didn’t want this to be a commercial, and this kind of “teaching” job is not for everyone, as we operate more as a camp than a school…but I work at the Daegu Gyeongbuk English Village, located in Chilgok-goon.

        • james dooney

          ah yes Dave. I lived and worked in the ‘gu before and I loved it to. I personally feel that Daegu is an awesome place. It sure is my favorite place in Korea.

  • guest

    People have to realize that this society is highly sociopathic. Those foreigners who do well and thrive here are usually highend sociopaths. Those who find out that they are not sociopathic enough whine about how bad it is here. You’re not in Kansas anymore! And guess what? It’s only going to get worse.

    As long as teachers don’t unite, exploitation will go on arbitrarily whenever the greedy sociopathic bosses see a weakness. Foreigners will continue to be fresh meat for the sociopaths in charge of this racket. It’s a pimp ho relationship and you’re the ho. Any attempt to say otherwise is just sugarcoating this truth.

    • Reilly

      Regarding your first paragraph. It is pure nonsense. You have no idea of what you are talking about. And I really doubt that you moved in the same social circles as the foreigners who did well and thrived here (hint most of these people aren’t/weren’t teachers). Unless you were their analyst or a very good friend of these foreigners…you would have absolutely no idea of whether they are sociopathic or not.
      As for your second paragraph there have been several short-lived attempts at unionization over the years. They have all failed for a variety of reasons. Here are a few.
      1. Most teachers come for a year, maybe two. The turnover is extremely high…thus making unionization a problem
      2. A union would be extremely limited in what it could do. By law E-2 visa holders (the vast majority of foreign teachers) are prohibited from any kind of political activity….which would include such union activities as strikes and picketing.
      3. Infighting. Too many want to be leaders and not enough want to be followers.
      4. Of the unions that have actually gotten off the ground (ATEK comes to mind) the follow thru’ has been dreadful. They had a number of meetings where the people who showed up…were 5% or less of the registered membership. If you have a base where only about 1 in 20 are willing to give up a Saturday to actively participate…it’s simply not going to happen.
      You simply have no clue of what you are talking about or the efforts that have been made in this area.

  • anon325

    Too many unqualified “teachers”. Korea needs to step it up and hire only those with an M.A. in linguistics with t.e.s.l. Minimum linguistics B.A. with t.e.s.l.

  • Kat

    Love the headline: “foreigners are duped” but not the true statement – Korean Hagwon owners are corrupt and immigration apathetic, as long as it only adversely affects foreigners. Corruption is not cute or “clever”.

  • http://www.ESLsearch.com ESLsearch.com

    TLDR; Academy illegally avoids paying required medical insurance and pension.
    Report them to immigration (with proof) and they will determine if they can put you on a D10 (job searcher) visa to search for a legit job.

    Native English Teachers Job Board

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