I placed the first object gently into my dusty suitcase. It was a standard English grammar book, nothing of any deep intellectual significance. I just didn’t need this reference book anymore. I was done with Korea. My contract had run its course. I had no desire to stay longer. My career in Korea’s ESL industry offered nothing else but one last paycheck. I was finished and there was nothing left to do but count down my last ten days before departure. The action of retiring this English textbook was symbolic. It shattered the ice that trapped me to Korea. I was clearing a path so I could leave. Gradually, over the next few days, I would deposit new items into the suitcase. Piece by piece until it started to bulge from overstuffing. The final step would be to lock the suitcase and to drag my butt to the airport. The accumulated objects could sleep in dormancy until I arrived at my next teaching destination.
Naturally, I fell into the usual process beforehand. I posted a few on-line resumes. I tested my marketability and checked the options available. My recently acquired TEFL certificate definitely opened up new opportunities. University job offers poured in from China, Japan, Latvia, Poland, Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. A few college teaching positions in Korea were also brought to my attention. For a brief moment I considered this latter idea, but the paperwork involved was rather discouraging. Korean Immigration now requires multiple copies of sealed university transcripts, notarized degrees, and criminal record reports to be eligible to work at public schools. The red tape demanded too much effort for teaching positions that required me to live in small on-campus dormitories. A different Korean hogwon was out of question. I am through with teaching children – regardless of location. In the end, Korean kids conquered the classroom territory, and my teaching methods were shoved to the jagged periphery. They won, I admit it, and their parent’s endless whining dulled whatever edges I could still grasp onto. I simply lost my will to play classroom politics any longer. I officially burnt out beyond salvage.
I had ten more days until scheduled departure. In fact, I had to legally leave Korea before my residency card expired. Otherwise, I would face severe financial penalty and possibly prison time. My employer pressured me to extend the contract, but I wasn’t willing to take any more risks. I simply don’t trust Korea. Private academy directors are infamous for cheating teachers during their last few weeks of employment. The last week of a contract is like judgment day. It is the period when teachers learn if they will be given their severance pay and return airfare home – something promised by almost every Korean school. However, this is precisely the moment when Korean employers love to pull the bait and switch. English teachers often get surprised when a director refuses to honor the mutual contract. Mysterious reasons are pulled out of the hat to deny wages at the last minute. A lot of teachers get fired in their last month, so employers don’t have to pay the promised bonuses. In the twilight of the contract, hogwon owners creatively conjure up new penalties to subtract income. After all, it is well established that they can easily get away with this dishonesty.
There is absolutely nothing that a teacher can do about getting scammed. Korean Immigration allows only ten days as a grace period before a foreign employee must leave the country after contract termination (and zero days once their residency card has expired). That gives a swindled teacher slightly more than one week to take legal action. A good Korean lawyer costs around $2,000, which is usually a greater sum than teachers are actually cheated out of. Even if the victimized teacher takes legal action they are forced into leaving Korea before the case comes to trial. The teacher has further problems collecting back fees once out of the country. Korean employers are fully aware that they can victimize teachers with absolute impunity. Therefore, some seldom hesitate. The same schools seem to scam teachers in continuous cycles. Eventually, scorned westerners just cut their losses and run.
As I slowly packed my suitcase I felt a surge of anxiety. My employer has always treated me with respect in the past. She has always paid bonuses and honored her contracts. But, the Korean economy is still very sluggish and my hogwon has taken a financial hit. There persists the pressing possibility of getting scammed during the twilight hours. My eyes were firmly on my bank account, and my thoughts dwelled exclusively on survival strategies. Despite my director’s trustworthy record, I felt a familiar twinge of panic climbing up my spine. It ate its way into my head like the hatching eggs of a breeding insect. What would I do if I got swindled?
Scams are a way of life in Korea’s ESL industry. Virtually all English teachers know somebody who has been cheated by Korean employers. People speak highly about the sizable teaching salaries in Korea, but what good are they if teachers are routinely screwed out of monthly income and promised bonuses? The precaution of caveat emptor is often cast forth, but Korean employment really comes down to the issue of trust. You can conduct advance research all you want, but the final outcome is always a roll of the dice. Will a recruitment agent’s words prove trustworthy? Will the contract be honored at the school? Will a hard-working teacher be awarded a fair deal? Once that dotted line is signed Korean employers can make alterations as they see fit. Contracts can be changed midway, legal wording can be reinterpreted loosely by employers, and new clauses thrown in with the threat of firing if they are not signed. Split shifts and weekend teaching sessions can be added after a contract has been formalized, freebie work can get assigned to unwilling workers, and overtime hours required without additional pay. Salaries can be paid late or suffer from mysterious deductions. The criteria within the legal document can be tweaked according to an employer’s financial needs. Korean private schools, known as hogwons, are notoriously disreputable in this regard. Korean employers just don’t take contracts seriously. Once a contract is signed, teacher are expected to obey the director without argument. If teachers protest bad treatment they can get unreasonably fired.
There is a quick remedy to a bad contract. However, it only works at the midway point. An English teacher can protest with their feet by making a midnight run. “Pulling a runner” is a well established technique in Korea. The way is works is this: a disgruntled teacher flees Korea in secrecy immediately after receiving a paycheck. The teacher covertly packs luggage all week, and when the next weekend rolls around they spring into action. They catch the next train to the airport – money still in hand – without telling anyone. When Monday comes around the bewildered school administrators start wondering where the teacher is. They start making phone calls only to discover an empty apartment. As a coup-de-grace the school has to spend a lot of money to a rapidly recruit a new English teacher. Parents will get promptly irked if they paid good tuition money for a native English speaker, only to have the school come up empty handed. Shortly after the midnight run has been successfully completed, the teacher’s colleagues get tormented with e-mailed pix of the runner celebrating on a tropical beach with a frosty mug in their hand.
The incentive to endure bad hogwon policy is to receive the final reward of severance pay and return airfare. English teachers can return home with financial security. As my own contract was brought to completion I didn’t want to become another statistic of a disgruntled teacher. I wanted to protect my own interests as much as possible. If this goal failed to materialize then I would actively seek out retaliation possibilities. How could I insure that my contract was honored? How could I guarantee that I could leave Korea with the promised bonus in my wallet? Would I need to resort to threats of blacklisting? Could I sabotage the hire of future replacement teachers? Should I drag adult students into protest in case my contract fell apart during the twilight hours? My nature is not inclined toward revenge, but given Korea’s reputation, I had to explore all options. It was pure survival instinct.
My first move was to make contact with the Korean Immigration Department. I was curious if they offered us English teachers protection. However, my numerous phone calls revealed that few representatives could speak English. Those in charge of moderating “foreign” employment relationships, seldom had the skills for basic communication. I was juggled around in a telephone maze and passed among employees. How could they offer support if they were reluctant to even talk with foreigners? I turned to the Internet next to learn if the Korean Immigration Department could be a valuable resource for my legal protection. After spending sixteen hours on-line, I couldn’t trace a single case of Korean Immigration helping out a “foreign” English teacher with legal issues. My tired eyes bugged out and turned bloodshot, but I still couldn’t locate one example of Korean Immigration siding with a foreign English teacher. At best, immigration administrators might make a courtesy phone call to a hogwon owner as an official inquiry. The Korean Immigration Department is very understaffed, so they don’t place a high priority bailing out swindled English teachers. They are focused mostly on issuing visas rather than settling contract disputes. They are reluctant to get involved, and if they do it is usually on the side of the Korean school. English teachers seem to be powerless to change this situation.
One tactic that English teachers can use, to insure that they will get promised funds, is to threaten a dishonest school with blacklisting. There are several sites in which teachers can blacklist schools that have cheated them (I counted seven that focus on Korea alone). Blacklists are the final resolve of disgruntled English teachers. We can report new scams. We can post warning to future teachers. We can name and shame a dishonest school. However, these blacklist are useless in reclaiming withheld salaries and bonuses. Blacklisting is solely a means to vent anger. It seldom helps with contract violations, except as an advance omen for future teachers. Blacklist websites have become controversial for a number of reasons. An opportunistic school can use them to damage the reputation of their competitors. Unscrupulous website operators can demand money to remove posts that tarnish a school’s reputation. Schools can be named and shamed without the opportunity to state their side of a dispute. It is tempting for a shady teacher to anonymously destroy a school’s reputation, rather than admit they got fired for showing up drunk to work. You have to take each post with a grain of salt and read them all with scrutiny. Ultimately, these websites get shut down often due to threats of legal action. Despite lawsuit potential, blacklist websites are an important part of the ESL industry. They are one of the few payback methods available to swindled teachers. Korea desperately needs a check and balance on dishonest schools.
The number of swindled English teachers in Korea is severely high. Cheating on contracts is so commonplace that forums have been created to deal with this dishonesty. In 2002, a new website was established to provide teachers with legal feedback (www.efl_law.org). It should be mandatory reading for any teacher who wants to come to Korea. It is astonishing to read the wide variety of tactics used to deprive English teachers out of income. The website doesn’t necessarily help the teacher with legal problems, but they do catalogue contract violations and offer phone numbers for legal representation. A few hours on this website is a true eye opener. The following list documents techniques – but, only a few of them – that Korean hogwons have recently used to swindle or manipulate English teachers:
• Dismissal at the 5th and 11th Month – English teachers are often fired shortly before their contract expires to avoid paying severance pay and return airfare.
• Forced Illegal Labor – English teachers are required to work for third parties, that are not enumerated in the contract. This outsourcing is in violation of Korean law. If teachers do it they can get heavily fined or deported. If teachers refuse to do this illegal activity they can get fired.
• Filing False Claims of Student Abuse – English teachers are accused of beating students, and the school lodges a complaint with the police. The teacher must flee the country without bonus pay to avoid prosecution or pay the school to help them out.
• Penalizing Teachers for Student Loss – English teachers have been forced to sign contract amendments that give the school permission to deduct wages as reimbursement for student loss. Refunded money comes directly out of the teacher’s monthly salary. Refusal to sign this amendment can result in job termination.
• Withholding Passports and Original University Degrees – Schools have refused to return this personal property to English teachers in attempt to prevent departure or in demand that teachers accept a job.
• Pressure to Extend Contracts – English teachers have been forced to renew or extend contracts, under the threat of withholding airfare or severance pay. Once a contract has been extended teachers have been fired anyway to avoid bonus payments. Once the contact’s date has expired, whatever happens afterwards is questionable territory.
• Pressure to Find Replacement Teachers – English teachers are often pressured to find a new teacher before quitting. There is sometimes an implied threat that severance pay or return airfare will not be awarded. At times, hogwon owners have even demanded that teachers post positive references on Internet forums (or defend the school from former blacklisting). The owner usually does not pay teachers a recruitment fee for this service.
• Threats of Lawsuit – The threat of lawsuits has been used to prevent English teachers from early departure. English teachers have also been threatened with legal retaliation for posting negative comments on Internet forums (or websites that blacklist dishonest schools). Likewise, the websites themselves have had lawsuits thrown at them.
• Racism – There are increasing incident reports that non-Caucasian English teachers have been abandoned at the airport by school owners who prefer white employees. Blacks and Asian teachers have routinely experienced discrimination during hiring practices.
• Improper Charging of Fees – English teachers often have fees deducted from their monthly salary to cover health insurance, recruitment costs, and government taxes. The English teacher later discovers that their employer was actually pocketing this money.
• Instructions to Defraud Korean Immigration – English teachers have been asked to apply for an easy-to-get visa that does not permit teaching. The teacher is told to deny that they are seeking employment, and pressured to claim that they are a tourist instead. Unfortunately, teachers are not informed that this action is illegal.
• Refusal to Issue Release Letters – English teachers must have a letter of release before they can apply for new employment in Korea (if the contract has been terminated early). Unscrupulous schools have refused to release teachers from the contract as a form of punishment or denied release letters to cover up illegal actions undertook by the school.
• Breaking Contracts by Changing Owners – Schools nullify a preexisting contract by selling the establishment to a new owner. The new owner often turns out to be a family member of the previous management.
• Borrowing Money from Teachers – Many hogwon owners have borrowed money from teachers or promised to pay salaries in postponed installments. This accumulated debt is sometimes never returned.
• Denial of Apartment Security Deposits – Some Korean schools insist on withholding one month of salary as a security deposit. This money is not always refunded at the time of departure.
• Unlawful Banking Practices – English teachers are required to start a second bank account in their name (one opened and controlled by the school). The school randomly deposits cash and shuffles it around. This tactic can be used to launder money and to avoid paying taxes (which are charged to the teacher instead).
The practices listed above probably don’t encourage English teachers to rush into employment contracts. They feed into the general distrust of Korean schools. The truth is that Korean hogwons have been allowed to get away with this inappropriate behavior for years. The Korean government does little to stop it. English teacher seldom have resources to take proper legal action. It is easier to just cut your losses and go. However, it get worse. English teacher can get swindled even before they start working in Korea. Recruiting agents also live up to notoriously bad reputations. A recruiter can get paid well over $1,000 for finding a teacher. This adds up to big money during the course of the year. In order to maximize profits, many recruitment agents are willing to hide a hogwon’s shady past. They seldom inform new teachers about disreputable schools or dishonest owners. Likewise, they have been known to recruit unqualified teachers, westerners with criminal backgrounds, and workers with horrible employment histories. Recruitment agencies sometimes act as a loophole that allows illegal employees to filter into Korea. Recruitment agencies are chasing profits, it is only a marginal concern if an English teacher is placed into a bad situation. The following list are ways that English teachers have been swindled or manipulated by recruitment agents in Korea:
• Demanding Special Processing Fees – English teachers are offered a prized teaching position, only to be informed later that the advertised job is only for special clients. They must pay a special processing fee to be eligible to apply for the more desirable job.
• Withholding Wages – English Teachers have been forced to forfeit a portion of their salary as a security deposit. If the teacher leaves before a certain date this money is kept to recruit a new replacement. Sometimes this deposit is never refunded.
• Withholding Passports and Original University Degrees – Recruitment agents seldom return application material. Unfortunately, they may also try to hang onto important documents such as passports and original university degrees. This action is an attempt to pressure a potential recruit into signing a contract. The teacher can’t find employment or an alternative recruitment agency if this material isn’t replaced. English teachers are promised these important documents after a recruitment fee has been paid.
• Double Charging Recruitment Fees – A recruitment agent unlawfully bills both the school and the teacher for the same service. They basically take in twice the amount of money by charging double.
• Recruitment of Illegal Workers – Many recruitment agencies knowingly place workers into illegal teaching positions. They find teachers employment without the proper visa or qualifications. They can also disregard criminal backgrounds in order to profit from recruitment fees.
• Recruitment for Illegal Classrooms – Recruitment agents have been known to hire teachers for unauthorized locations (such as factories, business corporations, third party schools, and unauthorized English camps). Many of these places do not have a license to hire English teachers. Instead, they find teacher who are outsourced by a hogwon. This practice is illegal in Korea. English teachers are prohibited from second jobs and private lessons. Teachers have been reported for this illegal activity to get them deported, rather than pay contractual bonuses.
• Borrowing Money from Teachers – Several recruitment agents have asked English teachers to loan them money to extradite processing. This cash is seldom returned.
• Illegal Banking Practices – The English teacher is asked to open up two bank accounts in their name. One account is controlled by the recruiting agent, who selects the PIN number. The second account is held by the teacher. The recruitment agent is paid directly by the school, and a sum is then transferred afterward to the teacher’s account. This banking activity is against the law. It is a tactic that could be used to launder money or hide improper employment.
As a slowly packed my dusty suitcase a wave of paranoia set in. I couldn’t help but feel it. After all, this was Korea. This country has never been placed in high esteem regarding its ESL contracts. There is a lot of hype about how Koreans fear “losing face” – how they feel family dishonor for personal mistakes. However, when it comes to swindling English teachers many hogwon owner don’t shed a second thought. Apparently, losing face has little to do with dishonesty, especially if it is directed at foreigners or lowly employees. I have been very lucky in avoiding all the scams and contract violations listed above. I am thankful to have been treated respectfully. As a reward I have found many replacement teachers for my school over the years. I feel a sense of gratitude and loyalty. The agreement is simple: I work hard and I expect to get paid on time. I want my contracts to be followed. In the long run there is a larger payoff for hogwon owners. They can find teachers by word-of-mouth. They can avoid exorbitant recruitment fees. They can prevent being blacklisting and discourage teacher from making a midnight run. All they have to do is honor contracts and treat teachers with respect.
So … into this disorganized suitcase went my photographs and spare toothbrush. I threw in extra clothing and all my remaining books. I was officially tucking away my past year in Korea. I was determined to leave. But, as I looked over the mess sprawled within my luggage, I couldn’t help but wonder about my life in Korea. I have spent a total of nearly two years at a single hogwon. There was sort of a sadness in leaving it behind. The chaos of my suitcase was like the wrinkles in my hand. I could read it to foresee my future. Inside this cluttered suitcase, I could also see an ESL history – the rise and fall of a Korean hogwon.
I accidentally clicked onto the wrong television channel yesterday. I punched the wrong numbers into a remote control, and that which popped up on the screen is what I call the insect channel. Everybody has seen this program. The actors portray the pure static of flurrying black and white dots. The dots race around with frantic energy, as if they were dancing to a musical composition of chaotic noise. There is no plot or script. All that can be seen and heard are thousands of tiny dots spinning out of control. Viewers usually switch channels quickly at this point to avoid headaches. However, I chose to move a little bit closer to the screen this time. The program that I was watching was the perfect characterization of Korea’s ESL industry.
English teachers arrive and depart. Students enroll and drop out. Schools open their doors and permanently shut down. Parents pay tuition money and transfer children to other schools. Recruitment agencies come to life and fly by night, and government officials stamp work visas into passports while cutting up residency cards with their other hand. There is the endless birth of new careers and the death of former jobs. There is the creation of success stories and the destruction of feeble dreams. The ESL industry is a non-stop chaotic dance. It is a frenzy without form. It is a shapeless blotch without blueprint. From a safe distance it does look like insects: scurries for food, crawls for cash, mindless mimicry, belligerent battles, magnificent maneuvers to mate, cross-cultural pollination, and periods of cocooned dormancy. Step up to witness the chrysalis and emergence of transformed students. In the end all parties experience a metamorphosis. Just break out your microscope for a closer look. Korea’s ESL industry is perpetually spinning and dancing, even as it discovers new shapes to bend into. Meanwhile, a cacophony of souls scrape toward goals and stumble at destinations renewed.
The world of teaching can be mysterious and magical. Really, the best I can do is to just focus on my own role as an English teacher. What is the nature of my employment to this specific school? How does my contribution enhance its development? These are timely questions to ask, and not only because I am leaving. Last week, my hagwon celebrated its sixth birthday. The owner hired me, in 1999, for its grand opening. She tracked me down through a four sentence advertisement that I placed on the Internet after drinking scotch all day. I had already taught English in Hungary and the United States, and I wanted more. I was there from the beginning. The school had only been in operation for three days. My director had almost no experience with westerners, and she couldn’t speak English very well. It is risky to sign a contract with a new school. There are no former English teachers to provide references and no way of finding out about an owner’s reputation in advance. However, I didn’t care about these things back then. I was very adventurous and preferred a school with a clean slate. I was a full-blooded American cowboy teacher who only wanted to explore the world. If things fell apart I would have migrated into Japan.
This newly opened school was located in a remote district. I was the first western teacher to ever work here. I became an instant celebrity. Children raced after me down several streets. Elderly couples stood and stared for lengths of time. Parents offered me gifts of fruit and fermented cabbage. Staff members bought me dinner and plied me with traditional wine. I became a part of local history. I was the only foreigner in a small district that was surrounded by rice paddies, and there were only two business streets. There was just a handful of private schools. In this environment, with few hogwons to compete with, enrollment thrived. By the year 2000, we had over two hundred students. My presence helped the school to double its classroom occupancy. These were happy times. Everybody gained something to improve their livelihoods. Students got better grades, parents heard their children learn a new language, factory workers practiced English to get promotions, Korean staff improved their speaking skills, and the owner made huge profits. I saved money, paid off some loans, and traveled around the world. All parties could develop their lives in some way. We lifted ourselves to a higher level.
English teachers at other schools experienced a different situation. At the same time that my life was prospering, teachers at more shady schools were getting cheated out of salaries. There was only about thirty English teachers in Kumi back in 1999. However, at least 25% of them were getting screwed out of income in one way or another. Many were denied severance pay and return airfare. There was residual behavior patterns going back to Asia’s financial crisis in 1997-1998. When Korea’s economy plummeted many English teachers were among the first to suffer. There are many horror stories from those who taught in 1997. Teachers told me of how they were forced to work for two months without salary, even as the school owner purchased a brand new car. Others explained how directors transferred them from nice housing to unfurnished rooms at squalid sex hotels. I know one women who was required to move into her employer’s apartment, who subsequently made attempts to fondle her at night. Many teachers were trapped because they didn’t have funds to leave – not even having money for a midnight run. English teachers were vulnerable because hogwon owners often used this financial weakness to exploit employees. Korean Immigration barely lifted a finger in aid of foreign workers. Bad schools were rarely penalized. The pattern of cheating English teachers was pretty much established by 1997, and this evil giant has only grow bigger since then.
One reason it is easy for Korean schools to swindle English teachers, without putting a dent in their conscience, is because these workers have become Korea’s first minority group. Koreans migrated to this peninsula several thousand years ago and they have kept this place to themselves (except when colonized by Japan). Korea is nearly 100% homogenous. It has never had a significant population of outsiders living here permanently. Even its own slaves were Korean. The few foreigners allowed to reside in Korea long term have had no voting rights. English teachers are the first batch of outsiders to fit into Korea’s Confucian-oriented social system. There is a lot of confusion about how to cut and paste us into their rigid hierarchy. We are square pegs trying to penetrate a circular hole, and Koreans are trying to protect their concept of life. Once English teachers are marginalized it is easier to treat us with less respect. The same accusations made against minority groups abroad are directed at westerners in Korea. We are labeled as unhygienic, criminally inclined, sexually deviant, and morally bankrupt. We have become scapegoats to their social problems. Once we are viewed as less desirable human beings than swindling teachers is an easy step. But, like many other minority groups we are given the right to leave – just as long as we are not hassled by customs officials at the Incheon airport – and, like frantic black and white dots on a television channel, English teachers come and go in this problematic cultural exchange with locals.
Korea’s ESL industry, in 2005, has gone through many changes. It has grown to massive proportions. There is almost 100 English teachers in Kumi. The expatriate population has mote than tripled in the last five years. There are now three major expatriate clubs: the Rolling Stone, the S-Bar, and Psycho (the latter is operated by American and Korean investors). There is also the first western/locally owned restaurant, the Waegook Cook, that specializes in international cuisine. The Waegook Cook, in particular, is a good place for cross cultural mixing since it has a significant number of young and progressive Korean patrons. These popular meeting spots are crucial establishments for expatriates to swap notes. English teachers inform newbies about bad schools and provide advance warning about the treatment of former employees. However, they are more frequently used for a nice party. The large expatriate population is so huge that it has splintered into cliques, and it isn’t as tight or as supportive as when there was a small community of 30 teachers in 1999. The magnitude of Korea’s ESL industry has starkly grown, and the relationships among expatriates has been altered, but the old behavior of royally screwing English teachers out of contractual obligations has remained the same.
What made my hogwon special was that the director honored her contract. She treated me with respect. For this reason, I was willing to return to Korea to help her out at a time of financial crisis. Korea is still suffering from the worldwide recession that started in 2002. Economic hardships in western countries have pushed university graduates into Korea for employment. The global demand for English has inspired many Korean entrepreneurs to start up hogwons. Many laid off factory workers and public administrators have jumped onto this bandwagon, too. The number of hogwons has increased to such volume that there are always schools looking for native English speakers. School owners are even willing to settle for teachers with zero experience and dodgy pasts. To put this growth in perspective, in 1999 there were only about a about five hogwons in my remote district, today there is almost thirty. There is a saturation of English teacher all over Korea, yet there is still a shortage. In order to keep students enrolled, a school must find native English speakers to increase marketability. In order to pull English teacher in owners make contractual promises that they know can’t be kept. As happened in Asia’s 1997-1998 financial crisis, those foreign hires can be later exploited to milk maximum profits – even if that means dishonoring legal obligations.
The ESL industry is spinning out of control. Regardless of massive competition, new hogwons get opened every week. These private schools have exploded at such a prolific rate that many are unable to maintain profits. The limited amount of children get spread among dozens of competitor schools. Profits thin out after awhile. When I left Korea in 2000 my school had over two hundred children, by 2005 this number had been cut in half. The poor economy has exasperated the situation. Parents are having difficulty saving enough tuition money for their children. Many have adopted a new tactic that I call “hogwon hopping”. Parents postpone tuition payments as long as possible, and when the owner pressures for payment they promptly pull that student out of class. They vanish into the vortex of a competing hogwon only to start the same process once again. There are so many hogwons that parents can ride this wave of non-payment for months. The cutthroat competition has made parents ruthless. They demand refunds if their child’s grades don’t improve. They complain about an English teacher’s pedagogic style. The threaten to enroll students at a competitor school if the owner doesn’t reduce tuition costs. The business then tries to regroup these losses by extracting income from teacher salaries – and, I remember a time when parents thanked me and brought me gifts of fruit.
The competition among hogwons has become nasty. Advertisement flyers for private schools blanket my apartment door every week. Sometimes opposing schools will send people to rip them down. School bus drivers can be recruited to spy on other schools and distribute this information. Competitors will spread rumors that an English teacher behaves immorally. They can drop hints about drug use or pedophilia. Eventually, these false claims are jumped on by the media without thorough investigation. Then the bad reputation spreads about the evils of this foreign minority. The next step is to distrust foreign English teachers and to further marginalize them. Once we are perceived as foul and immoral beings, people who are inclined toward sexual depravity and criminal disposition, then it is much easier to justify endless cheating on contracts. This is a self-fulfilled prophesy: well qualified teachers find more professionally rewarding markets elsewhere, good teachers burn out from exploitation and put less preparation time into class, and then the dregs of the teaching world start spilling in. In time, English teachers can grow to fit their stereotype, and the destructive cycle keeps revolving.
When I returned to Korea in July, after gaining my TEFL certificate, my school had nearly fallen from insolvency. The owner tried to save money by forcing Korean teachers to work full weekends for no extra pay. She withheld salaries from them for weeks on end. In results there was a complete turnover of Korean teachers. They all quit their jobs at the same time, and many of the students left with them. Well liked teachers keep students enrolled, and when one quits school morale drops. Let down children will transfer to other private schools, and take their friends with them. Competitor hogwons were happy to scoop them up. My director could not compete with newer schools. They had nicer furniture and cleaner walls. Their air conditioners still worked.
Many competitors invested big money in the design of their building. Some schools have elaborate architecture to catch a child’s eye – spiraling staircases, gothic turrets, and brightly painted primary colors. A few hogwons have a Disney-like appearance, complete with playgrounds and cartoon themes. Some hogwons have adopted controversial enrollment increasing tactics. For example, one popular new trend is installing cameras into the classroom so parents could anonymously spy via home computer. An even greater threat was private franchises. Big names such as GnB, Global, ECC, English First, Prime, and Wonderland could swallow family-operated schools alive. Corporate chains could purchase books and supplies in mass quantities for a cheaper price. They could permanently employ their own recruiting agencies. They had advertising funds. The one selling point of my family-operated school was that it had the only native English speaker in the district. It was the one niche that kept my boss in business.
It is extremely risky to work for a school in the middle of financial hardship. Expatriates have insisted that I am foolish for even considering it. I even accepted a cut in pay that placed me well below my market price. My motive was based on principle. If an employer treats me with respect and honor I will mirror it back to them. If they honor my contract, so will I. Thus, I have never called in sick or reported late to work. My family has a strong working class ethic. My parents worked for the same company most their lives, and they educated me on the value of loyalty. I wanted to show a commitment to the principle of honor. Besides, I enjoyed the idea of helping a family-run school with its development. I hated watching large corporations mow them down. Therefore, I was willing to take the risk. I wondered if my contributions could develop a small Korean school, in a remote district, at the grassroots level. Could I keep this establishment alive? I viewed it as a test. I wanted to learn about Korea’s capacity to build friendships with foreigners. There is too much animosity recently between Koreans and westerners, and I wanted to transcend these social politics.
My relationship with my boss was based on trust. She treated me with respect in the past, so I would return the favor. I have helped her to find three replacement teachers since I first left in 2000. She, in turn, has aided me in hard times. She wired me funds for a ticket when I was broke and sleeping in a public park in Berlin. It took trust to do that. I could have absconded with this money and never seen her again. I was hit hard by the recession in the United States and unable to find employment there. My desperate struggle to work in Europe failed to turn up anything reliable before my money ran out. If she could trust me than I would offer her the same. My last day in Korea – before I left to get my TEFL certificate in Thailand – my boss took me for a car ride on a recently opened highway leading to Kumi. She confessed that she had to undergo major surgery in July. Doctors would require her to take two weeks off while in recovery. The school would have to close down without my help. If its doors were shut they might never open again, because students would have enrolled at a competitor school during her absence. We made a mutual agreement in her car on that day. I promised to return for ten weeks after I finished obtaining my teaching certificate. She offered to give me a raise, my return airfare, and the severance allowance. Now, with a fully packed suitcase and two more days to go, I am about to enter judgment day. Will my contract be honored? We meet again tomorrow for our last time. I will soon find out about the power of trust.
There is an important moral dilemma in finding replacement teachers. You are not sure what you are getting the next person into. The quality of a teacher is also a mystery until you see them in action. Since my contract’s date was about to expire I didn’t want to leave my employer in a bind, especially at a time of financial hardship. She was still in the hospital from surgery and unable to look for English teachers herself. On one hand, she had honored our past contracts and treated me with respect. But, there were also warning signs in the distance. After I returned to Korea, in July, my monthly payment date was switched from the 25th to the 10th without explanation. In consequence, I needed to wait six weeks before my first paycheck. When the 10th finally rolled around, only part of it was given to me. I was told that the next installment would come later (and it did after another two weeks). More importantly, airfare had been subtracted out of my salary. The agreement was that she would pay for my return from Thailand – after all, I did turn down many job offers. She wired me money for a ticket, an act requiring great trust, but decided later to withdraw it from my salary. I could practically smell the smoke coming out of the burning aircraft.
I had mixed feelings about putting a replacement in my shoes, especially with all the financial problems at my school. But, I was willing to see what I could do. I wasn’t just trying to insure that my contract bonuses would get paid. Still, Many English teachers are heavily pressured to fish for foreigners at the end of a contract. Sometimes they are even threatened with punitive fees if they don’t come up with the goods. It is comical how innovative teachers can get when their last paychecks might not roll in. I know several teachers who pretended that they were their own future recruit. They sent their employer bogus e-mails under a different account name. They included attachments of their best friend’s photograph, and designed phoney degrees on a computer. As a crowning touch to the façade the “recruit” imposter demanded confirmation that the current teacher that he/she got their severance package. Once paid, these English teacher quietly tiptoed out of Korea, only to fire off an e-mail to their boss later, under the false identity of the “recruit”, to say that they changed their mind. Their former directors were left empty handed.
My search for a replacement turned up six reasonable candidates. This list makes a great cross-section of those seeking work in Korea. The top of the list was an ESL professional with a MA degree in English and a CELTA certificate. He spoke Korean well and had two years experience. He was willing to consider the position for 2.0 million Won (far below his market price). The second candidate was a blonde-haired American woman with a BA and five month experience (her employment was terminated early to avoid contract bonuses). She was already in Korea and willing to work as low as 1.9 million Won, if she was given two weeks vacation during Christmas time. The third English teacher was a Canadian woman fresh out of university with a BA in Anthropology. She had absolutely zero experience and had never traveled abroad before. The fourth candidate was a Korean-American who wanted to learn about his roots. He was willing to work as low as 1.8 million Won. The fifth candidate was a South African male who spoke fantastic Korea, and who had great local references. He had a MA degree and two years of teaching experience. Since he came from South Africa, a country Koreans know more for its Black citizens than its English usage, he was willing to work as low as 1.7 million Won. The final candidate was a Scottish baker who needed employment and a place to stay as quick as possible. He lived temporarily with a girlfriend in Kumi, but had just been fired by his employer (who screwed him out of back pay and contract promises). All candidates were willing to sign a contract due to my positive reference.
I asked my school owner to narrow the list down to two candidates and an alternative in case one backed out at the last second. The ESL professional was the first off the list. He wanted too much money. The South African and Korean-American were also eliminated without serious consideration. I imagine that this was because they were perceived as non-Caucasian, which is slightly ironic since the former was a white Afrikaner and the latter was raised in a totally western environment. Female teachers are desirable because they have better reputations with children. Women can ask for higher salaries than their male counterparts and often receive them. However, the one who wanted vacation time became the alternate, and eventually she was struck off the list. The most desirable candidates were the ones willing to work for cheap. This proved the defining criteria of teacher qualifications. It helped to live in Korea already, to save employers from airfare reimbursements, but the overall requirement was the size of requested salaries. My school owner hesitated too long, and both women were quickly snapped up by different hogwons. The final candidate was the most unpredictable and desperate one. He needed emergency income and a place to live. I had time to warn him before he actually signed.
He agreed to sign a contract during my final week. All he had to do was to see the hogwon before sealing the deal. I suggested that our director should meet him at the train station, since it would be difficult for a foreigner to find our obscure hogwon which was off in the remote horizon. For some reason my suggestion was rejected, however, I didn’t care because I had already done my part. I put one and one together. It was the owner’s and the recruit teacher’s responsibility to add up the sum of two parts into a mutual contract. I was not getting a recruiter fee for my efforts. It was no longer my business anymore.
It was time for the grand event. The showdown of our contract. I was about to learn about the power of trust. My employer was out of the hospital and was returning to work. My services were no longer needed, my promises had been fulfilled, and the date on my contract was about to expire. I barely had time to buy my ticket and get to the airport. My residency card and E2 visa would be nullified in a matter of days. Above all, I hated this feeling of not knowing. Would I get trapped, swindled, or manipulated? Would I become a caged animal in Korea? Usually, when I leave a country there is a sense of celebration. I am taken to dinner parties and given gifts for the road. When I left colleges in Hungary and Thailand there was a feeling of gratitude and accomplishment. There was no doubt that I would get timely paid and my bonuses awarded to me. However, this is South Korea and I worked at a hogwon. My overall emotion was anxiety. I had no idea how much money would be in my pocket when I left Korea. I was too afraid to exchange money in advance or to wire funds home. Severance pay and airfare are important, but I still hadn’t even received my last month’s salary. I was reluctant to celebrate with English teachers or to even buy anyone lunch. I had no room to spare. My budget was tight as always. It was time for the last dialogue, and it could be roughly paraphrased as this:
ME: “Hello, Ms. ______ tomorrow is pay day. I made a ticket reservation and I need to purchase it soon. Can you tell me how much money will be in my bank account”.
OWNER: “Well, you know that my school has had a hard time. The Korean economy is very bad”.
ME: “Yes, I know. This is why I came back to Korea to help you out”.
OWNER: “This is a hard time. Parents don’t pay me. Many students leave”.
ME: “Yes, but I did what I promised. My contract expires soon and the government demands that I leave South Korea”.
OWNER: “You can extend your contract”.
ME: “But, I have found you a replacement teacher. I have an university job lined up in Thailand. I told you this before I even came back”.
OWNER: “Yes, but you only worked ten months. A contract is usually one year”.
ME: “My contract states that you will pay me return airfare and my bonus on August 15th. You also promised me this in your car before I left for Thailand in March. Otherwise, I might not have come back”.
OWNER: “I think it is impossible to give you that money. When I said that I meant that you must come back to work for six more months”.
ME: “But, I accepted a major cut in pay to help you out. I paid for my visa run to Japan. You subtracted airfare from my salary every time. I even found you an replacement. A recruitment agent will charge you up to $1,500. I have done this at no cost. I did what I promised you I would do”.
OWNER: “I thank you for your friendship and for helping me out”.
ME: “Yes, your welcome, but what I need to know is how much money will be in my bank account”.
OWNER: “ I will pay your monthly salary, minus the money you will owe me for next month’s utility bills”.
ME: “I think that I should be given something. I understand the business is bad lately, but I have made sacrifices to be here. We can renegotiate. Pay me for either airfare or my bonus salary. You can choose. At least offer me something for my effort”.
OWNER: “Maybe one day I can send money to your bank account in Thailand”.
… So, to answer the shining question – will I be paid return airfare and the severance bonus promised in my contract? – well, the answer was “no”. The best I could hope for was that maybe there would be a check in the mail. One could debate either side. I had spent ten weeks in SE Asia, which we both agreed upon in advance. I took a major cut in pay in compensation. Does a contract get nullified due to a working vacation or sabbatical? Some will say that I got what I deserved. When I left in March it was on good terms. Why was I asked to come back? Now, a positive working relationship had gone sour. My bonus package was not paid, and I even suffered the humiliation of utility deduction. This wasn’t friendship, it was just a standard business arrangement. I focused on the principle of trust, but in the end it was money as usual. My were two people in great financial duress arguing about scraps. I wasn’t even treated to a complimentary dinner out of gratitude.
My time in South Korea wasn’t a total loss. I did gain a few positive things. Working here enabled me to earn my TEFL certificate. It got me off the streets and helped me to buy a brand new piece of luggage. It was packed and ready to load on a plane. At least, I wouldn’t be empty handed. I had no plans to blacklist my school or waste my energy on revenge. This is South Korea. It is better to cut your losses and run. My moral responsibility now lay with the English teachers that I had recruited. They needed to be forewarned. I sent the following batch e-mail to all of them. I made it simple and sweet: “Warning: I can no longer guarantee this school will honor its contracts. It is suffering many financial hardships at the moment. Although this owner has been respectful of me in the past this hogwon’s future is unpredictable. Proceed at your own risk”.
I barely made it to the airport before my hogwon owner sent messages to me in desperation. The recruit English teacher had changed his mind. The hogwon was located in such a remote area that he couldn’t find it. Korean streets seldom have names and its buildings lack numbers. The only landmarks in my districts are dozens of apartment towers. He got lost, gave up, and went home. He ended up drinking in an expatriate bar all night instead. While sipping his first beer that evening another English teacher informed of a better offer. It promised an inflated salary, because it was an emergency situation. The school had just lost its teacher due to a midnight run. With one phone call to my employer he backed out. My director was in dead panic. All of a sudden she had no teachers. The new semester was about to start. She asked if I could help her with last minute recruitment. “Sorry,” I told her, “I just don’t have the funds for that. I would like to help you as a friend, but it isn’t written in my contract”.