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.

I read discussion boards on 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