Is this the hagwon from hell?
Published : Apr 5, 2010 - 18:32
Updated : Apr 5, 2010 - 18:32
"It was simply awful," a former teacher at the Jeju International English village told The Korea Herald. "I was being screamed at and threatened by the director."
In tears, the teacher called the police. A couple of uniformed officers showed up at the village the next day and in a conspiratorial manner ordered the teacher, "Keep this visit a secret, we have been investigating this school for some time."
They told her to "sit tight" and continue to behave as a model teacher for the final two weeks of her contract. Showing great presence of mind, the teacher asked for the policeman`s details in the event she needed to contact him again.
When it came time for her to leave, the village director, identified as Lee Chan-won, refused to pay her final salary. She contacted the police officer, and together with an interpreter, they went to the local Labor Board office. In the car, the officer quizzed her about the school and the activities of her boss.
The Labor Department was sympathetic but said unfortunately there was nothing they could do to force the director to pay her, at least not before her flight left later in the day.
A few weeks later The Korea Herald called the police officer to ask how the investigation was going. Rather surprisingly he categorically denied the school was under any sort of investigation. He told us he was at the school to check on the passports and other documents of the teachers, a routine visit to see if they were legal and qualified, he said.
Obviously this turn of events warranted further investigation. The Korea Herald contacted the Immigration Department to ask if it was normal for police officers to make these "routine" visits to hagwons and English villages.
The Immigration Department`s investigative branch told us the police have absolutely no authority to conduct document checks of this nature, routine or otherwise. They emphatically told The Korea Herald that documentation checks are the exclusive domain of the immigration and education authorities.
When confronted with the statements from immigration, Jeju police cheerfully told us that Seoul had got it wrong, and such checks were commonplace.
Someone obviously has it wrong. Director Lee later told The Korea Herald that at no time or for any reason had Jeju police ever had cause to visit the English village.
The operators of the Jeju village also run the Oxford English language hagwon in Seoul. The Korea Herald has received a litany of complaints against Lee, his wife Jasmine, and other senior staff.
The complaints and accusations range from tax fraud associated with the "After School" program, forging teachers` signatures on fake contracts, failing to provide promised or adequate accommodation, non-payment of salary, forcing teachers to work in locations other than the one on their visa, illegal contracting out, and threatening behavior. The list is long and very disturbing. Teachers have told us about multiple visits to immigration, the Labor Department, and the police.
One particular teacher and his partner told us the immigration officer they spoke to offered the information that the school and its directors were under investigation. The Korea Herald contacted this particular immigration officer in early October and asked him about the complaints and the alleged investigation.
"Nothing has been proved," he said, essentially confirming that some sort of investigation was taking place. The officer said he`d invited Lee to present himself for an interview, but he hadn`t shown up.
"I called him again and told him to come to the office. He said he is in the country but very busy and would come in later. We are now still waiting," he said. Another appointment had been made for the Friday following our initial phone call.
In a later conversation with The Korea Herald the immigration officer admitted that he had actually gone to Lee`s registered place of business. "We went to see the man in person but could not meet him. He had moved or something." Or something?
The immigration investigative branch told The Korea Herald that failing to inform the authorities of a change of registered business address would leave the hagwon directors - and possibly even the teachers - liable to prosecution. That was two months ago.
The Korea Herald contacted immigration again a couple of weeks ago and asked how the "investigation" was going and if the officer had managed to catch up with the elusive hagwon director, Lee.
According to the officer, the director still hadn`t shown up. In a telephone interview, Lee categorically denied he had ever been contacted by immigration in Seoul and invited for an interview. He also asserted that his registered place of business had not changed in the past three years.
A former recruiter for the Oxford School/Jeju International, meanwhile, was delighted to speak to The Korea Herald.
In January 2006 they recruited several teachers to work at the Jeju village. Soon after their arrival, the teachers were suddenly hauled before immigration and accused of working in a location other than stated on their visa documents. The recruitment agency was also called in for questioning.
"We arranged for the teachers and did the paper work," the recruiter told us, "but then Lee illegally changed the documents to show the teachers were supposed to be working in Seoul."
Anxious to restore their reputation, the recruiters filed a complaint against Lee, who in turn accused them of being complicit in the illegal activity.
"We eventually learned that the immigration office had come to the conclusion that Lee was lying and we had nothing to do with the changes," the recruiter told us.
The agency has had no contact with Lee or his business for almost a year, and advises all reputable recruiters to do the same thing, "Mr. Lee is really a bad and rude man," they told The Korea Herald, "he has a really bad way of doing business."
It is well established that Lee and the highly questionable way he conducts his English teaching enterprises have been brought to the attention of the authorities on several occasions. The lack of initiative shown by the police, labor, and immigration departments to conduct a thorough and coordinated investigation is nothing short of disgraceful.
The Korea Herald made repeated attempts to contact the hagwon/village for comment, and only at the last minute managed to speak to Lee through his interpreter. Lee told us he had never forged or altered contracts, denied he had been called in for questioning by Seoul immigration, and dismissed claims by Jeju police that they routinely visited the English village.

By Chris Gelken