Posted by: scottishboomerang | February 22, 2008

Contracts and culture in Korea.

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that a western-style contract is best for any sort of international business relationship or transaction. An unambiguous, detailed contract is the best way to ensure a great working relationship with your employer anywhere, but its especially important when there are language and cultural barriers between the parties. Ideally a formal description or reciprocal duties and responsibilities, the primary purpose of a written employment contract is to ensure that the transfer of services and money runs smoothly, minimizing the likelihood of disputes. I can’t wait for the day when the concept of using a contract as a conflict-prevention tool enters the minds of Korean employers.

If you are a migrant worker – such as an ESL teacher, or factory laborer, your employment contract may be less than desirable. In Korea, an employment contract is drafted by the employer, and most employees are either not in a position to negotiated the terms or are unaware that they should negotiate. The drafing of these agreements is usually left up to employers, who often have a limited awareness of their responsibilites under Korean Law. The result is predictable. Korean contracts for migrant labour are riddled with ambiguous language, omissions, errors, and illegal clauses. The conflicts that arise frm them keep Korea’s overburdened labour boards and civil courts very busy all year round, with the State footing the bill in most instances.

Contracts usually reflect the culture of the country from whence they originate, and many of the problems faced by migrnat workers stem from the fact that there are many unfamiliar things which form part of Korean working relationships which are taken as given by the employer and presented as a fait accompli to the employee.

In Korea (and other Confucian cultures), the employer generally has a much greater degree of involvement in the life of the Employee. Far more details are worked out between the parties orally than in a western business relationship. Generally speaking these details are dictated orally by the employer rather than being a true negotiation. Absolute obedience is expected by the employer, who, in the traditional Confucian model, also has absolute, paternalistic responsibility over the employee. Under normal circumstances, an employment contract constitutes a mere formalization of this Confucian relationship, with all that it implies (for this reason employment contracts in Korea tend to be much shorter and simpler than their western equivalents).

With foreigners, however, the Confucian model breaks down. Absolute obedience is still expected, of course, but the responsibility side of the social equation is not generally though to apply to non-Koreans, as the cultural concept of foreigner in Korea is literally “outsider”: one to whom normal mores do not apply. This is an accident of history, as foreigners were generally occupying military or the agents of aggressive empires coveting Korean territory.
 This has causes a peculiar dichotomy to emery in the national psychology which means that a different set of social and cultural mores apply to foreigners. This dichotomy can creep into the working relationship. In addition, few foreigners can tolerate the levels of paternalism present in normal Korean employment relationships. The potential for conflict or discomfort on both sides, even when substantial good will exists between the parties, is very high unless both the employer and the employee are aware of how their respective cultures affect teh way they approach the relationship, underscoring the need for clarity, and detail in their working arrangements.
This basically means writing it down. Western style.

[The Author] holds an MA in International Law from Handong International Law School in PoHang. Nothing in this article shall be interpreted as legal advice.
This article first appeared on Tuesday 5th February 2008 in the Expat Living section of The Korea Herald.]


  1. nice…worth sharing..:)

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