Wednesday, June 13, 2007

It's not just about the ESL teachers

The recent Korea Herald article over those Daejeon banners offering
rewards for information leading to the conviction of English teachers
who conduct illegal private tutorials caused quite a stir. The
letters are still arriving and contributors to internet message
boards are still voicing their outrage.

Having said that, some people have questioned why The Korea Herald
should have given up its front page to the story, and why we have
devoted so many column inches to an issue that essentially affects so
few people.

Well the simple answer to that is; we haven't. This isn't just about
a few hundred foreign English teachers in Daejeon.

It has also been suggested that the stories were too sympathetic to
foreigners, some of whom may in fact be among those who are illegally
tutoring students.

Not true. The Korea Herald does not condone or encourage illegal
behavior. But it is important that the law is even-handed and applied
across the board, and not selectively where a particular group is
frequently singled out for special attention.

It has been a fortnight since we first reported the banner issue, and
a week since the front page story where one of the interview subjects
actually admitted there were English-language hagwon in Daejeon who
routinely ignore labor laws. If Daejeon hagwon are so blase about
following the law, who is to say that hagwon throughout the Republic
of Korea do not share this laissez-faire attitude. So we are not
talking about a couple of dozen hagwon and a few hundred teachers.

According to sources, despite this admission, there has been no
crackdown by the authorities. What does this tell us about the
attitude of government officials in Daejeon?

Perhaps the immigration office in the city has already shared
information with the tax, pension and national health insurance
authorities, and they are now busily checking their records to see if
every foreigner registered with immigration as a resident and
employed in Daejeon is actually paying into the legally mandated
system. Perhaps.

So it's not just about teachers, it's about the ability of local
government officials to take the initiative and do the jobs they are
paid to do. And if the local government workers in Daejeon are so
ineffective, then would it be fair to say that officials in other
cities are equally gripped by the same lethargy? This potentially has
far-reaching consequences for every Korean citizen, and is not
confined to the problems of a handful of migrant workers.

For example, Korea's aging society and low birthrate - coupled with
the fact that the national pension is hemorrhaging cash - might
suggest that pension collection authorities would demand employment
information on every individual in Korea - foreign or not - and check
their records to ensure that each and every one of those individuals
was paying their dues. You would think so. But you would be wrong.

So again, this isn't just about English teachers, it's about the
future financial security of retired Korean workers.

National health contributions help to provide better and more
affordable health care for everyone, but not all those who should be
paying into the system are doing so. That will make health care more
expensive for everyone, not just for English teachers whose hagwon
directors have decided to unilaterally "opt out" of the system.

The Labor Department, the Seoul Help Center and foreign embassies
receive scores of telephone calls from foreign teachers every week,
perhaps every day. They are complaining about every manner of abuse
at the hands of unscrupulous hagwon directors.

It would be fair to assume that these unhappy individuals are
distracted by their problems, and are not giving their full attention
to their primary function, teaching the more than 11 million Korean
youngsters who attend private education institutes.

So do you really think this is about a few hundred foreign teachers
in Daejeon? Think again.


Some great letters to the editor:

A letter to the Korean people

A letter to the Korean people

Many Koreans don't seem to understand what all the fuss is about. A
number of those I have met can't fathom why foreign ESL teachers are
so enraged over the banners that were put on walls and on school
buses in Daejeon recently.

Certain categories of visa holder (E-2) cannot engage in private
tutoring. This is the law and I certainly have no problem with it
being enforced. However, the manner with which this banner campaign
was conducted put all foreigners under unfair scrutiny, and at least
as far as the Korean version is concerned, was factually incorrect.
Whether this was a deliberate attempt to mislead or an unfortunate
error is unknown, but in any event, the damage was done.

Imagine if law-abiding, hardworking Korean residents in New York,
Washington, D.C., Toronto, or Los Angeles woke up to see buses
driving around their neighborhoods warning them that they were all
under scrutiny, and even accusing those legally engaged in business
as being criminals.

Uncalled for? Yes. Prejudicial? No doubt. An unfair characterization?
Absolutely. But maybe something like this would help Koreans
understand how we feel. To the foreigners who live and work in Korea,
this issue is important to us. It's symbolic of all the problems we
as foreign residents face on a daily basis from a country whose
modern attitudes, open-mindedness, and willingness to join the global
community are dealt a setback by incidents such as the banner

The reticence and apparent nonchalance on this issue by the Korean
people, the Korean government, and the Korean media is deeply

This issue is just the tip of the iceberg of the multitude problems
faced by ESL industry workers. In the recent article "Have the
Daejeon hagwon gone too far?" (June 7), Mr. Mun Yei-seung of the
Daejeon Foreign Education Association essentially admitted to
widespread abuses of Korean labor laws. Furthermore, he insinuates
that he and his organization have given their tacit approval to
hagwon to break the law by refusing to report violations. Says Mr.
Mun: "Me personally, I don't do anything (about hagwon that disregard
the law). Because I am quite well known in this community, so if I do
something, they will know it was me, and that is too much for me."

Where are the labor and immigration investigations into this matter?
Why is it okay to overlook hagwon violations but launch a highly
visible campaign to punish foreign wrongdoers to the fullest extent
of the law?

These questions, the double standards, have all of us foreigners
scratching our heads and leave us feeling increasingly frustrated.

I apologize if this seems harsh. I have nothing but deep respect and
admiration for Korean culture, the Korean people and all of their
great accomplishments and contributions to the world over the past
millennia. It is precisely my deep appreciation for Korea that makes
it so painful for me to watch the culturally self-destructive
attitudes and methods of a few crooked businessmen ruin it for
everyone. No, this is not a problem with "Korean culture." This is
just plain bad governance, bad oversight, and lack of enforcement.

Joseph Litt

First, I would like to thank you for having written such an
informative article on the current situation with the DFA ("Have the
Daejeon hagwon gone too far?" June 7). I personally thought you had a
good balance of opinions and views from both sides of the argument.

I just wanted to share my personal experience that soured Korea's
reputation in my eyes.

A year and a half ago I decided to work in Korea hoping to explore
Asia and learn about Korean life, which is quite different from my
own. Over the years, Vancouver has had a growing Korean population
and with that, there is

a widespread appeal for its cultures and values. So, I secured a
contract with a hagwon to, in a sense, "open my eyes" to Korea.

The school director and company president generally treated me well
and we had a professional relationship. However, after the completion
of my contract I decided to move to Seoul in hopes of gaining more
experience through professional development at a better-known hagwon.

My former employer then decides that it was okay to not pay me my due
wages, claiming he was suffering a financial crisis. But to my
knowledge, he is currently operating other hagwon which are enjoying
financial growth.

I decided to consult the Labor Board with my issue. They are now in
the process of negotiating with my ex-employer.

The DFA issue felt like another slap in the face. For us foreigners
who have dedicated our efforts to teach and learn in Korea, there is
no calling for overarching statements made by local business owners
who don't even follow the law themselves.

I would like to pose a question to The Korea Herald. Would it be okay
for foreigners to openly make inflammatory remarks directed hagwon
owners, even though we all know it's probably illegal?

Jeff (Full name and e-mail address withheld)

The unfortunate result of these selfish and greedy actions by a few
Daejeon businessmen is that the city of Daejeon as a whole has been
blacklisted on some EFL job boards.

Job seekers have been warned not to accept any positions in Daejeon
because of the actions of a minority of businessmen, who at heart are
not educators at all, and who do not want their educational
institutions to stand up to the scrutiny of the discerning public.
All legitimate academies and universities could now find it a little
harder to recruit English teachers.

This has backfired seriously in the faces of the noisy minority.

(Name and e-mail address withheld)

Overall, I was pleased with the contents of this article ("Have the
Daejeon hagwon gone too far?" June 7). What I do find concerning is
that in the end nobody from the Daejeon Foreign language Association -
the very people who employ these foreign teachers - was willing to
take any responsibility for this campaign.

The hagwon owners claim they were acting on an idea presented by the
Immigration Department, who in turn deny it was their idea.
Immigration does say that they gave their support to what amounts to
a racially biased intimidation tactic. When the blame is placed
on "Charles" he denies having any involvement with the DFA (something
that is later discovered to be a lie), and claims to be a volunteer.

Mun Yei-seung, speaking on behalf of the DFA, admits there may be
some wrongdoing by hagwon owners, but that they have done nothing in
order to correct their own faults, and he does not feel he should
personally intervene if there is a hagwon conducting illegal
activities. He also states that these illegal actions often work to
the benefit of the teacher, and cites medical insurance as an

What Mr. Mun doesn't mention is that foreign workers are often not
advised of their rights or given a choice, but are instead brought to
doctors whom are known by the hagwon director. This may be fine,
provided the teacher doesn't have an accident or suffer a serious
injury while not at school. Furthermore, these hagwon owners often
charge the teacher their portion of the medical insurance and pocket
the money.

What this article shows is that many hagwon owners - and the DFA as a
whole - care little about their employees, don't feel they should
have to deal with legal issues concerning foreign workers, and accept
little or no responsibility for their actions. Instead, they choose
to blame teachers, colleges, universities, and branches of the

Since they are offering an apology, I think a banner campaign on the
sides of their buses reading "We apologize to all hard working, legal
teachers who were offended by our unwarranted and inaccurate
comments" or some such thing would be appropriate. It's not likely to
happen, and I hope nobody is holding their breath waiting for that
apology to come.

Chris Bemrose

Many hagwon owners make the bulk of their profits by not only
cheating the foreign teachers out of appropriate payment, but also
the provincial and federal governments. If the hagwon industry truly
is a 15 trillion won economic engine then logic would dictate that
there are hundreds of billion of won that are not being properly
allocated to federal and provincial coffers (pension and income tax).

So many of these owners act without reproach. They treat their
teachers with contempt even though it is we (foreign and Korean) that
afford them such a stress-free and uncontested standard of living.
They live a lifestyle that far exceeds not only their merit but more
appropriately their need. The industry has clearly never been
regulated and should be as soon as possible. The need is obvious, the
urgency vital.

There are laws against fraud, misappropriation of funds, embezzlement
and tax evasion.

Hagwon are defrauding and cheating the parents, the students, the
teachers and various levels of provincial and federal government. If
foreign teachers are expected to abide by immigration and tax laws,
would it not be reasonable for hagwon owners to follow suit?

Charles Dumont

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