Lina, an owner of an English hakwon in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi Province, allegedly coerced Nancy, a 33-year-old woman from near Atlanta, Georgia, who had just given birth, to sign a backdated letter of resignation to avoid paying maternity leave.*
“I was pretty worried when I got pregnant in Korea,” said Nancy.
Nancy had spent a few years working as a substitute teacher and part-time at a retail store to pay the bills and scrape by. She came to Korea to look for a better life for herself and escape the daily grind and has stayed for five years.
Nancy worked in the private academy in Hwaseong where three teachers had already come and gone in the first year of the school alone.
Three teachers leaving within the first year of the school’s opening set off alarm bells to Nancy, who had been in Korea for five years.
“She (My boss) was pretty happy for me but worried about the students parents’ reaction. The reputation of the school was shaky. I was a single woman at the time and I feared it would jeopardize my job,” Nancy said.
Under the law, working mothers are entitled to 90 days of maternity leave; up to 44 days before the due date, one day for the delivery and 45 days or more after the delivery.
The employer should pay wages for the first 60 days of the leave period and the remaining 30 days are covered by the employment insurance.
Each parent is also eligible for up to one year of parental leave and can receive 40 percent of their base monthly salary with an upper cap of 1 million won.
However, many expats are not aware of the law about paid parental leave.
“I first asked my employer, then the school headquarters,” explains Nancy. “I was told maternity leave was given based upon the director’s discretion and generosity.”
Though Korea has one of the lowest birth rates in the world with just 1.21 births per woman, it is not uncommon for new mothers such as Nancy to be dismissed or coerced by their boss to resign.
“I was never informed of any insurance fund for pregnant employees, my right to any days or that fathers were even given any time off. I asked in Facebook groups too and no-one really had a concrete answer—I was told that I needed to be contracted for a year to get any benefits.”
“My contract was for ten months. I was taking over the previous ESL teacher’s position,” explains Nancy.
Nam Jin-kyung, an official for the labor ministry, says that pregnant women have the right to take maternity leave regardless of the duration of employment.
“The pregnant worker should be granted maternity leave for 44 days before the child birth. Otherwise she can report this issue for the violation of granting maternity leave to the local labor office,” she said.
“And more importantly, she should also be granted 45 or more after child birth. If the employer does not provide a paid maternity leave, he or she shall be punished by an imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 10 million won.”
Nam also added that employers cannot fire female employers for being pregnant.
“Employers cannot dismiss pregnant workers during the pregnancy period. We have a provision regarding this issue as well,” she stressed.
Observer say maternity and parental leave are available to all families, regardless of marriage, race or sexual orientation, but this is often disregarded by employers or social stigma forces women to quit.
Mok Kyung-hwa, head of the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association (KUMFA), points out that prejudice against unwed mothers is so strong in Korea that many women working for big companies quit their job before people take notice of them being pregnant.
“They cannot tolerate the social stigma as many view unwed mothers as someone who is promiscuous; had an affair with a married man; or someone who doesn’t know how to properly take care of herself.”
Kim Min-jeong, an official at KUMFA, told the story of unwed mothers.
“One woman worked at a convenience store but didn’t tell the owner about her pregnancy in fear of losing the job. But the owner eventually found that she was pregnant and fired her,” she said.
“Another woman worked for a large book store. Her boss fired her after reviewing the documents that she submitted for the maternity leave, which revealed that she had no husband. Unfortunately, it is easy for the employers to find out whether their pregnant employee is a single mother and this often leads to unfair firing.”
Experts say pregnant women or new mothers in Korea are unaware or unwilling to take benefits set out for them in law.
Hannah Walford, 29 and originally from Cardiff in Wales, worked at a Hagwon for a year in Korea, but is now relocated back to the UK after a frightening delivery of her baby in Korea. She knew nothing about the available benefits.
“My co-teachers were unsympathetic and hostile. I had a few scares which involved emergency hospital visits—which my co-workers resented, even though I found and paid for a replacement teacher out of my own pocket,” she said.
Hannah had severe morning sickness for a number of weeks and her pregnancy culminated in early labor and eventually an emergency C-section.
Hannah was forced to find and pay for a supply teacher—not something that happens in the United States, the UK, Australia or any of the seven countries where English teachers on an E2 visa come from.
“Towards the end of my pregnancy, I went into early labor and was hospitalized for eight days before catching an emergency flight home,” Hannah said.
“My Korean co-teachers resented this and continued to ask when I would be able to teach classes despite me explaining that I was at a high risk of delivering a very premature baby. Also, all the time I missed when I was in hospital, I arranged and paid for a replacement native teacher.”
Dr. Louise Patterson, professor at Kyung Hee University, said that employed women who are pregnant are not always given paid maternity leave, despite it being a legal entitlement.
She also believes that employers should be legally obliged to inform employees of entitlements.
“The onus should be on the employer to disclose benefits. Korea has the highest percentage for the gender wage gap of the OECD countries and we have not improved the female labor participation rate in recent years,” she said.
“Working women are targeted for involuntary resignations in times of economic crisis, lack of career progress upon marriage and childbirth, and there is a lack of women in higher level positions. Yes: there is gender discrimination here.”
That gender discrimination may have affected Nancy, too, in her fight for compensation and recognition from Korea’s labor board—a fight that she, and her fledgling family, ultimately lost.
Despite three signed letters from doctors that suggested Nancy was incapable of making a sound legal decision due to having just given birth in hospital and still under the effect of heavy drugs, the labor board looked at the letter of resignation she signed from her hospital bed and ruled that it was binding—preventing her from reaping any of the legal benefits entitled to her.
“I was heavily medicated for high blood pressure and anti-seizures. I was also on pain pills from my C-section. I was distraught over my daughter in the NICU (neonatal intensive-care unit).”
Nancy had just gone through a dangerous and potentially life-threatening labor.
“Nobody asked me why I didn’t take maternity leave or that I was even allowed that option. So, for weeks I carried myself around in pain from 9 to 6 on the job,” she explains.
She suffered from pre-eclampsia and the condition nearly took her and her unborn child’s lives but she was not allowed to take time off work. The condition caused her to have high blood pressure and low platelet counts, causing severe headaches and two seizures. The pre-eclampsia also caused her baby’s survival to be described by one doctor as, “not great.” (http://www.gofundme.com/jbpmwc)
An MD, currently on residency in Canada, said pre-eclampsia can be a severe condition.
“Thought to be a problem with the blood vessels in the placenta … in severe cases, the woman may be admitted [to hospital]. It can lead to eclampsia, causing seizures,” the Dr said.
Nancy’s case was bad enough to cause a difficult pregnancy and by the time labor came around, she required an emergency C-section.
Her husband, Devin, also an English teacher, recalls the moment a nurse asked him what to do if the battling pair’s health took a turn: “She said to me, ‘Devin, you have a choice. Who do you want to try and save? Your wife or your baby?’ It was the absolute worst thing she could have said. I said to the nurse, ‘What would you do if you were me? Who has the best chance of survival?’ and she couldn’t give me an answer.”
The baby was born six weeks premature at Seoul National University Hospital and weighed around 3lbs, but is a fighter and pulled through. The lesions on Nancy’s brain caused by the seizures are slowly going away although the brain damage she suffered may never truly recover. If she had been given maternity leave then her condition may have been better and her labor easier.
Shortly after Nancy got back to her apartment, LINA came to visit. Nancy was bed-ridden at the time and on anti-seizure medication as well as heavy painkillers, having just gone through a general anesthetic and a life-threatening few days.
“She came to visit and ask me to come back to work. I said that I was unable to,” Nancy explains. “When I said I couldn’t, she said, ‘Then you’re quitting. Write me a letter of resignation.’ I kept crying and trying to tell her that I wasn’t quitting, I just couldn’t work, it was physically impossible.”
But Lina insisted.
“She kept saying, ‘Actually you are, you are quitting. If you’re not coming back to teach then you’re choosing to quit. Write me that letter.’ She told me what to write, dates and all.”
Her boss coerced her into writing a letter of resignation dated December 17, 2014.
After signing the letter of resignation, the hagwon owner wanted more.
“Afterwards, she told me that my family and I needed to vacate our housing in 36 hours because she needed to move in my replacement.”
Nevertheless, the labor board ruled in favor of the hagwon largely because the hagwon owner claimed that she had offered Nancy maternity leave in a contract which Nancy then refused.
Nancy says that she would never refuse paid maternity leave. Even though Nancy claims the resignation letter was backdated and she has three letters from doctors that treated her stating that she was not in a position medically to legally in a responsible state, the labor board still sided with the hagwon.
Nancy remains philosophical but thinks that raising a child as a single mother in Korea is possible.
“I like how [parents] push and encourage hard work. I’ve taught in the USA before moving to Korea five years ago and the attitude from parents and students alike can be disheartening. I want my child to be the best she can be, but I want her to enjoy being a kid and have as much of a childhood as possible,” she said.
Many other expats, like Hannah, choose to return home to have their children.
“We had no idea about any of the benefits available to us and we didn’t receive any of them. We were very much out of pocket because I had to pay teachers while I was in hospital. The maternity leave would have made our lives so much easier,” Hannah said.
If pregnant expats knew about the benefits to which they were entitled, perhaps more would remain here to start their families.
The Korea Observer tried to contact the hakwon in Dongtan for an explanation, but it refused to answer.
Reporting for this story was made possible through the support of people who have made a donation for the crowdfunding campaign that we launched at gofundme.com/firedpregnant.
* Both names Lina and Nancy are aliases.