Posted by: scottishboomerang | November 8, 2007

The Indentured Teacher.

How far have we come?

As a group, ESL teachers here do seem to engender a bit of contempt, as this recent comment from Brendon Carr (Korea Law Blog). commenting on the recent editorial content of the Korea Herald.

 [T]he Herald seems to have hired some former English teachers as  reporters, as the slant of coverage in that paper has veered perilously toward being the crusader for English teachers’ rights (which are often abused fairly outrageously, but still…). The article repeats the usual canards about how harsh the Korean system is on English teachers, while perfidious hagwon owners are coddled. Dark racist conspiracy is implied by a quote from a disgruntled English teacher[.]

This mild contempt for the woes of foreign teachers are is echoed elsewhere, surprisingly from inside the profession.  Not long ago, Raphael Sabio, an English teacher of three years standing at a Korean public school and a somewhat regular contributor to the opinion pages of the English language press on the peninsula wrote several impassioned articles about the cross cultural management skills of foreign teachers in Korea, and recommended among other things, compulsory cultural training for incoming teachers.

Mr Sabio’s articles, precipitated controversy in the press and even more hours of debate in the foreigner hang-outs up and down the country, as all and sundry (the latter being people like me who, though teaching legally, are here for other reasons),  pondered on the implications of such classes. Who, we wondered would implement them? Does Korea actually have such experts on trans-cultural management? How much would they cost? Would they actually help? 

The prevailing attitude, as wave after wave of scandle  hits the headlines of fake-degree brandishing, illegal paedophile teachers, fueling national hysteria in a society that was never comfortable with ideas of pluralism anyway –  that the private the private education sector here can be transformed through the self-improvement and professional development of foreign teachers. Mr Sabio is quite right, of course,  to identify cultural clash as being problematic for foreign teachers and their Korean employers.  He is wrong to suppose that a culture class which teaches the rookie teacher  how to bow, use chopsticks, and the rudiments of a culture that, prior to the 20th Century, had spent the previous three millenia in isolation from the rest of the world,  will help the teacher with some of the more difficult aspects of living and working here. Training of the kind described by Mr Sabio, unless it included Korean language training and coping strategies for some of the more negative experiences a foreign migrant worker is likely to face here, would not improve working conditions, the quality of English language teaching, or Korea’s reputation abroad.  In this light, Mr Sabio’s comments seem somewhat naive. 

Naivete and idealism can perhaps be forgiven in the case of a teacher who has not been here very long, and having his salary garunteed by the government under a half-way decent contract has never had to deal with recruiters or hakwon owners,  and thinks – as ESL teachers are wont to do –  of his profession only.  The comments of Mr Carr are perhaps less forgivable, even though doubtless his own position in this country that of a migrant professional too.    He should know by now,  having legal training and presumably examined how Korean law treats foreigners, that the racism and institutionalised xenophobia are not “dark conspiracy”.  It’s a nigh-universal feature of a foreign migrant worker’s experience here in Korea.  What else could it be? Unless married to a Korean, Mr Carr will be unable to get a housing loan, consumer credit, or even a postpaid cell phone without a Korean sponsor, and his own visa will be utterly dependent on his sponsoring organisation. Just like the rest of us.

The negative experiences to which I have referred (which I doubt very much whether a government sponsored self-improvement course for teachers could resolve)  include mild irritations such as erosion or invasion of privacy, or insulted or spat at in the street, to more serious abuses of human rights such as sexual or physical abuse and harassment, routine cheating of wages, being raped or subjected to homoerotic advances in the workplace or in employer-provided accommodation, bad contract drafting, breach of contract and labour law. There is little or no redress available through the civil process, and Korean prosecutors, though powerful, are also rarer than hen’s teeth and horribly overworked. ( In my city of half a million people, there are nine of them).     A trip to, and the Korean pages of the embassies of the”Big Six” nations supplying English Teachers to Korea, will reveal the extent of the problem, but this miserable state of affairs by no means affects only ESL teachers.

I am thinking, of course, not only of some 30,000 ESL teachers and other professionals (by in large engaged in the international trade in services), who are educated, aware of their rights, and have the economic resources (sometimes) to pursue them. I’m also thinking of the thousands of blue-collar migrant workers employed in Korea in dirty, difficult and dangerous jobs, who suffer similar maltreatment, but often squared or cubed in its severity, proportionate to their economic leverage. This begs the question – if this is how we are treated, we who have influential embassies, financial resources, education and awareness of our rights, how are those who are not so fortunate treated?  The answer is somewhat predictable. Amnesty International’s report on the fate of migrant manual workers here does not make pleasant reading, but it is illuminating, and their experiences strikingly familiar to any ESL teacher who has lived and worked for any length of time here. It is empathy we feel when we read these reports, not merely sympathy. 

The  real reason why South Korea has such a bad reputation internationally, why warnings are posted on every embassy website, has nothing to do with the lack of cultural abilities of foreign migrant workers. It has little to do with the petulant whining of afluent white ESL teachers. It has everything to do with the way the immigration and work permit system works here – put bluntly – it gives far too much power to employers, and this is a culture where employers believe that they literally have ownership over the lives of their employees. We are by the whim of those who pay our wages, and those who pay our wages have their profit margins, not human rights, as their top priority.

A working visa in Korea is a temporary thing – the visa is for a short period of time, C-4 visas are for three months, E-2 visas are granted for 12 months. The majority of blue collar migrants, if they are here legally, are on C-4 visas. In order to leave your job before the term of the contract is up, you must not only give notice but have written permission from your employer to start working for someone else. In other words, all foreign workers here are indentured workers.

This  leads in far too many cases to foreign migrants being blackmailed by unscrupulous employers into working and living in intolerable conditions, or to the migrant leaving their employ and working in the informal economy. I have heard of many foreigners (of all backgrounds and professions) who – not without some irony – have started working illegally because the pay, working conditions, and general treatment at work were infinitely better than legal employment.  I know of no other country in the world where it is safer to work in the informal economy than it is to work in the formal one. 

By contrast, in Japan, a work visa is the property of the government, and the visa is valid countrywide. An employee may leave one job and start working elsewhere – within the same time frame. They also have the right of freedom of association (another third generation human right) and are free, like their Japanese counterparts,  to join collective bargaining organisations. No foreign worker is free to do this on a work visa in Korea. Essentially, working here as a foreign migrant – of any profession or status – is a form of indentured servitude, and all who have lived here for a long time know of at least one person who has been effectively blackmailed into working and living in intolerable conditions because the employer would not give a Letter of Release.

What would changing the law achieve? Firstly, it would do much to clean up the act of the private education market, including that of recruiters – that wholly unscrupulous parcel of rogues who are to ESL what pimps are to the sex trade (and indeed, I don’t detect any noticeable difference in their moral character). It would give more negotiating leverage to teachers, improving both employment and contractual standards. The best teachers in the country could be headhunted and employers would have the impetus to make an effort to retain good staff, and, Korea’s international image thus improved, and more great teachers would be attracted to Korea.  It would allow for steadier employment, improving fiscal prospects for foreign workers, and raise labour standards accross the board.

A change to the immigration law would also, retain workers in the formal economy, thus increasing tax revenue and easing the burden on the immigration department.  Once the laws guaranteeing and upholding the rights of  freedom of movement and freedom from involuntary/indentured servitude, (third generation human rights), would mean that thousands of very vulnerable workers would have more freedom to pursue these rights and gangmasters less likely to violate them. I also believe that changing this law would also result in a reduction of human trafficking and recruitment of vulnerable foreign women into the Korean sex industry, since female workers fleeing intolerable working conditions who end up in the informal economy.

Korea is now marketing itself as the “Hub of Asia”, but its image is tarnished as every foreign worker who has a bad experience here, every one who has attempted to seek redress for obvious breaches of contract through the Korean civil court system, and most certainly by every adverse human rights report on the miserable state of affairs for foreign migrant workers in blue-collar occupations. 

Mr Sabio and Mr Carr would have us adapt and stop whining. If you don’t like it, go home, they imply.  Put up or shut up. Yet in doing so they forget that a society is really only as good as how it treats its most vulnerable people.  There are wider issues at stake which damage Korea’s reputation abroad and contribute to what can at best be described as a mediocre human rights record, and human rights of course is not merely a concern for the State in which violations occur. Migrant workers get a raw deal everywhere – you only have to look at the experiences of Mexicans in the USA to see that –  but human rights organisations are writing about Korea.  Only when rights and freedoms of everyone – foreign and Korean –  are properly protected under the law, will self-improvement culture classes be of any real value.

At the moment, we have enough on our plates, and most of us who have lived here for long enough already know how to use chopsticks, bow, and respect Confuncian values.



  1. The comments of Mr Carr are perhaps less forgivable, even though doubtless his own position in this country that of a migrant professional too. He should know by now, having legal training and presumably examined how Korean law treats foreigners, that the racism and institutionalised xenophobia are not “dark conspiracy”. It’s a nigh-universal feature of a foreign migrant worker’s experience here in Korea.

    Actually, the problem for the migrant workers is that they generally rely on their abusers to be the source of advice on law. There is no dark conspiracy — there are a number of official apparatuses (notably the National Labor Relations Commission) established to enforce labor rights and from the perspective of a corporate lawyer, those apparatuses are too vigorous in their efforts to redress matters.

    So yes, the whining gets old.

  2. Thanks for posting, Brendan, and for the link.

    You don’t say in what ways the official apparatus is “too vigorous” in redressing matters.

    English teachers do whine, I am the first to admit it. And it “gets old” because they won’t work together, have no sense of cohesion as a group with similar interests, and no empathy at all with other migrant groups, and don’t know how to negotiate (and amend) a contract. Other migrant groups don’t have the voice to whine. They suffer in relative silence. Given the extent of the problem, I fail to see how any national efforts, as they are currently implemented, could be considered “too vigorous”.

    Change the immigration law to get rid of the vile, human-rights violating LoR, and problem will largely correct itself.

  3. I happen to agree with you about the basic chattel-slavery status conferred upon foreigners by the Immigration Control Act; there are few ways to immigrate here lawfully except by investment.

    The investment route, though, by global standards is exceptionally easy. Only W50,000,000 is required. By contrast, immigration to the US as an investor requires several hundred thousand dollars.

    Why do I say “too vigorous” in enforcement efforts? The NLRC is quick to accuse employers and to pressure for capitulation even where there has been no violation.

  4. And also, I have yet to meet a teacher who didn’t whine…iin any jurisdiction. They give you special whining classes when you train 😀

  5. [T]here are few ways to immigrate here lawfully except by investment. The investment route, though, by global standards is exceptionally easy. Only W50,000,000 is required[.]

    Does an FDI of 50,000 KRW actually confer citizenship or residency rights? I was always under the impression the D8 investor’s visa merely confers the right to (a) be your own boss in Korea and (b) stay here while being your own boss. My understanding that the actual right to be a Korean citizen, or even a permenant resident, isn’t actually granted even if you are married to a Korean citizen.

    European Union countries are special cases (for the UK you can buy citizenship for a cool 1 million US in government bonds), and its very hard to get permenant residency even if you work your behind off for years. In the US and Canada, however, one may progress from being a student, to a permenant resident, to a citizen, in a very short space of time.

    Of course, foreign nationals hailing from the countries with the most stringent immigration requirements in the world (like Brits and South Koreans) head to North America in droves, and with, no doubt, a sense of entitlement.

  6. Great piece!

    My own job, a public school one no less, has tried to add things to my work plate that are not in my contract on several occasions, and for a period of about two months had me living in some rather squalid conditions (you can see photos over at I wish that there was more information out there about what it can be like here, and I was very glad to see this entry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: