Protect Yourself From Corrupt Hagwons in Korea. You Have Options.

This is (almost) my first non-food related post on this website. Usually I would hesitate to write such a post on a site so clearly dedicated to food, but I feel this will explain my two-month absence away from posting recipes. Also, I hope to help others in similar situations, which seems to be happening to more and more teachers in hagwons. If it weren’t for a few key friends who helped point me in the right direction, I wouldn’t have known how to protect myself. The whole endeavour would have ended quite differently. Likely with more question marks. And more tears.

Teaching in Korean private academies (hagwons) can be extremely beneficial in many ways. For four years, my experience teaching at hagwons has been far from perfect, but I’d always considered myself to be in relatively good situations. That is until two months ago when the shit hit the fan.

I found myself being treated very unfairly by my employers and trapped in a scam. After sacking me and another foreign teacher for unjust reasons, my employers informed me that if I wanted my release letter (necessary for visa transfer), I would not only have to repay the airfare they provided to get my out to Korea, but I would have to pay a 500,000 won recruiter’s fee. The latter was not stated on my contract and it became clear to me that my employers were going to hold my release letter hostage for money.

When in Korea on a teacher’s visa, one cannot just switch jobs. This is because our jobs are tied in to our employers. Employers can choose to release their teachers, or not.  Immigration laws for foreign teachers tend to be strictly enforced, while laws regulating hagwon abuse seem to be few and far between. It is a very unfortunate, problematic issue and it is not uncommon for hagwon owners take grave advantage of this.

After battling back and forth between thoughts of waiting to see what happens, fleeing the country and fighting tooth and nail for my rights, I decided I needed to protect myself. I did. And it F-ing worked.

Here are the steps I took:

I wrote out my grievance and thoroughly prepared all my evidence and documents including pay slips, conflicting statements and scrutinized my contract with the school. I also started secretly recording conversations with the owners on my phone.

Next, I found out my rights and read about commonly used deceptive practices by hagwon and hagwon owners on this very helpful site created by foreign lawyers who know Korean laws. EFLlaw.com

I read discussion boards on eslcafe.com and various other places to see what steps other teachers have taken to protect themselves when in similar situations.

I called the Korean immigration hotline and told them my grievance. They set up an appointment. I was hoping they would be able to switch my visa from an E-2 to a D-10. D-10 is a “looking for work” status and is a relatively new option for foreigners. It provides more time to those in urgent situations to take more time to look for work. They weren’t especially helpful as they informed me I needed a claim slip from the labour board before they could do anything.

So, I called one of the Labour officers at the Seoul Global Center and the Support Center for Foreign Workers to get their professional opinion of my case. After they, and everyone else I spoke to about it said my case sounded quite serious and that I wasn’t being treated fairly, I decided the best way to protect myself would be to make a claim with the Labour Board against my employers. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this in English. I had a Korean friend help me translate my grievance and fill out the claim form.

This was incredibly nerve wracking for me. I had never had to take actions such as these in my life and I was unsure of what the outcome would be or how long it would take to process. So, I read more discussion boards where people shared their stories of woe and triumph after making a claim against a employer with the labour board. I was relieved to find out that it seems the labour board has gotten so sick of hagwons breaking contracts and using so many deceptive practices to cut costs that they have really begun cracking down on them.

When a claim is made by a teacher, the labour board takes the hagwon to court. This looks really bad for the hagwon. Since they are concerned about the reputation of their establishment, they will often begin making offers to the teacher to get them to cancel the claim. The labour board knows this and informs the hagwon they have a few days to settle the dispute before they begin the investigation. Since I didn’t have the time, nor did I want to go through a painful legal battle, I was banking on my hagwon making offers to me as soon as they heard from the labour board. They did. I got my release letter and pretty much everything I wanted that day and it only took a few days.

Teachers, do not despair. You have options and there are ways to protect yourself. Don’t run away or give up without fighting. Before accepting any position, be sure to check your next potential employers on all the Hagwon Blacklists and be smart about scrutinizing your contract well. Good luck.

Here are photos to help remind you that you love Korea.

P1230126Seoul FortressKorean children doing stretchesPajeon and kimchi

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23 thoughts on “Protect Yourself From Corrupt Hagwons in Korea. You Have Options.

  1. lindsay September 13, 2013 / 2:28 PM

    Wow this could not have come at a better time. I am going through this right now and everything you have just said has made me feel so much better. Everything stated in this is exactly what I am experiencing. Every emotion, worry, and thought that has gone through my head has been stated in your blog. i would love to e-mail you personally. Please get back to me if you have the time, Everything in my gut is telling me to fight this despite all the awful things my employers are pushing me to do. Thank you so much for posting this. Congrats, I hope I also will have the same outcome!

    Like

    • Turmeric and Twine September 13, 2013 / 7:50 PM

      Lindsay,
      I’m very sorry that you are experiencing all this. It is a very challenging situation made much scarier by being in a foreign land. Surround yourself with people you trust and take action. I’m happy to help you in any way I can.

      Like

  2. Sharifa September 13, 2013 / 4:04 PM

    Dear beautiful friend,
    Thank you so much for letting us know of your travails and triumphs over the last months. I am so glad that 1) you stood up for yourself & 2) it worked!!!
    Massive hug.
    Loving thoughts.
    The photos and your intention behind posting them of remembering the love of Korea are inspiring.
    love,
    sharifa

    Like

    • Turmeric and Twine September 13, 2013 / 7:43 PM

      Thank you, my darling Sharifa! I felt it necessary to post those little love notes at the end. Its always good to be reminded of why you’re in a place and what you love about it.

      Like

  3. Amin David Dawdy September 13, 2013 / 5:21 PM

    by standing up for your rights you have made the path easier for others; standing firm in dignity is a good mirror for us all.

    Like

    • Turmeric and Twine September 13, 2013 / 7:41 PM

      Thank you. It helped to have many key supporters in this fight. I found out who my friends are and what they’re made of.

      Like

  4. Jean Dendy September 13, 2013 / 8:41 PM

    Way to go Beebs!!! I’m so sorry that something so horrid happened to you, though. What are you going to do for work now? Can you stay in Korea?

    Like

    • Turmeric and Twine September 13, 2013 / 8:49 PM

      Thanks Jean! Because I got my release letter, I have been able to transfer my visa to another school. I ended one job two weeks ago on a Friday, moved on Saturday and started the new job on Monday. I have happily moved on with my life.

      Like

  5. Teddy Woo September 14, 2013 / 11:39 AM

    What you posted happens more often than people think and its sad to see foreigners come to such a beautiful country with so many different flavors and end up leaving with a bad taste in their mouths because of one rotten egg. And trust me, it’s not a ‘race’ issue. Even though I’m an American citizen I was born in Korea. And yes, I went through the same thing. The Labor Board has been getting the same complaint from these hakwons that after looking at my paystubs they just called them and threatened them with an investigation. And like you, I think it took them 2 days to resolve the situation. ^^

    Well, what I actually wanted to say was thanks for keeping a positive aspect in such a shitty situation.

    Like

    • Turmeric and Twine September 15, 2013 / 12:40 AM

      Thanks for your comments, Teddy. It is quite a shame that so many people walk away from Korea with negative experiences. Many people have no idea that there is anything they can do. If this post can act as a guide to anyone in this sort of situation and help them through it, than my goal will have been met. Cheers.

      Like

  6. Mia Cooper September 14, 2013 / 12:34 PM

    I love this post! I’m not quite old enough to teach overseas (20) yet but im glad I read this post so I can know what to look out for. I would like to teach in either Korea, Taiwan or Japan and I’m really excited.

    Like

    • Turmeric and Twine September 15, 2013 / 7:09 PM

      I’m glad you’re excited about it Mia. Be smart when choosing a teaching job overseas. You’ll probably have an amazing time. Most do.

      Like

  7. mom September 14, 2013 / 12:45 PM

    I am so proud of you dear daughter. Feeling your misery for these 3 weeks and then seeing how you calmed down and took action was awesome.
    Love
    Mom

    Like

  8. Jacqui September 14, 2013 / 7:26 PM

    Inspiring, Beebs. Thanks for writing about this.

    Like

  9. Lindsay September 14, 2014 / 6:54 AM

    Proud of you babe! Great read.

    Like

  10. fjackson1 November 30, 2014 / 7:37 AM

    Thanks for writing this!

    My mate went through a very similar experience at Norian Kindergarten, Dong-gu, Ulsan. Much like yourself, my mate was messed around repeatedly when it came to money. At first, the director paid her late each month (very annoying, but not TOO bad), but gradually things got worse and worse. The director pretended that she couldn’t “afford” to pay her staff, when really she was paying a tutor 3 MILLION WON to teach her son for just NINE HOURS a week. She was obviously lying. In the end, she fired all of her native English teachers JUST before their contracts were due to end so she didn’t have to part with severance packets (2.1 million won a piece). And don’t get me started on the bullying and screaming…

    Your blog has given me faith that justice will be served! Good on ya!

    Like

    • Turmeric and Twine December 1, 2014 / 9:42 PM

      Thanks Frank! The hagwon business has become very sketchy. One has to be extremely careful when choosing a teaching position because it is too easy to be put in an awful situation where you find yourself being taken advantage of. Sorry to hear about your friend. I hope she found herself in a better place after that. I also hope she fought for her rights!

      Like

  11. Brittany July 15, 2016 / 9:00 PM

    I’m thinking about moving to Korea to teach English at a hagwon and just stumbled upon your post while researching on google. I’ve read so many negative stories about hagwons breaking contract, so I wanted to know what a teacher could do if put in that situation. I’m really impressed with the steps you took to solve the problem and so glad that things worked in your favor! Thank you for sharing your story and giving people like me a valuable source of hope and information! Best wishes!

    Like

    • Turmeric and Twine July 16, 2016 / 12:37 AM

      Thank you for your comment, Brittany. Working in Korea was a great experience. I had a great time despite the difficulty. I had a lot of help when this happened to me so I felt it was only fair that I pass the same information along. I hope you find a great school to work at. There are many great schools that take good care of their teachers, but scrutinizing contracts and making sure that everything is legit is very important. Good luck!

      Like

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