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[Exclusive] Foreign English teachers in Korea seek to launch first nationwide union

April 14, 2023 - 20:36 By Elise Youn

A group of foreign English teachers employed across the private academy industry are seeking to launch the first nationwide union to represent their rights, organizers told The Korea Herald.

Most new foreign English teachers, as well as Korean parents and students, are unaware of the labor abuses rampant in the private academy industry, they said.

Wage theft is among a list of common issues, they explained, referring to online posts of teachers claiming they have been forced to work more than the legally permitted number of hours in a day, week or month, and without getting legally required break times, annual leave, overtime pay or time off in lieu.

Poster for Saturday’s press conference and meeting in Seoul for Korea’s first nationwide union organizing effort of foreign English teachers (KGLU)

Dismissal based on discriminatory pretexts such as a teacher’s nationality, race, gender, sexuality, health status, age or marital or family status are also common. The list includes on-the-job physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by employers, students and their parents, as well as inadequate housing provided by employers, such as mold-infested apartments, they said.

“We believe that the Korean public is unaware of these abuses,” said Elspeth Teagarden Tanguay-Koo, a former US teacher and one of the organizers behind the effort.

"When they (Korean families) pay tuition, they’re contributing to paying into the pocket of an employer who may grievously be abusing employees,” she said. "And that impacts the quality of education that then is imparted to their children."

There have also been cases of employers registering foreign English teachers as independent contractors to avoid paying taxes and basic insurance for their workers, leading to the teachers themselves being penalized, according to the organizers. A common tactic is foreign teachers being fired in the 11th month of the contract so the employer can avoid paying them the legally mandated severance pay, they added.

In 2021, when inflation spiked, private academy owners began raising their class fees.

However, according to one teacher at a private institute in the Chungcheong region who asked to be named only as Austin, the statutory minimum monthly salary for foreign English teachers on E1 and E2 visas has remained the same for the last 22 years: 2.1 million won ($1,600) for 209 hours of work per month. This amount -- which he lamented as also the most common -- works out to be barely more than the same as a worker earning minimum wage, although Austin estimates he actually works 240-250 hours a month without compensation for overtime.

The rise of Hallyu and Korea’s stature internationally have led to more young people wanting to come and work here as English teachers, making them vulnerable to abuse by private academy employers.

“The K-wave promotes the sense of Korea being this perfect place. Women, specifically, are coming over here because of their love for K-pop and K-drama, and they're getting highly exploited,” said a longtime foreign English teacher in Korea on the condition of anonymity. “That is the greatest irony. Korea's booming globally and foreigners are suffering here.”

Organizers seeking to unionize are teachers active in the Facebook group LOFT: Legal Office for Foreign Teachers, which has nearly 14,000 members and offers resources for foreign English teachers, providing advice on legal and immigration issues they face here.

They have been delving into the patchwork of labor and immigration laws that govern their lives here and studying precedents for organizing foreign English teachers across the industry.

In most cases, foreign national residents are prohibited from taking part in political activities in Korea. But according to the Trade Union Act, anyone can join a union, regardless of their employment, nationality or immigration status, according to them.

A network of teachers began organizing under the Korea General League of Unions, one of the 16 unions under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions. KGLU represents workers left out of traditional company- or industry-based unions, such as employees of small and medium-sized enterprises including independent contractors, day laborers and fixed-term contract workers. Foreign teachers on the contracts required by the E1 and E2 visas fall into the last group.

“By joining the union, we have the opportunity to advocate for our own economic livelihood and our human rights, and those rights are protected by the Supreme and national courts,” said Tanguay-Koo, who currently works as a language education specialist and multicultural education researcher.

“What we can do is work collectively in local Ministry of Education jurisdictions to advocate for policy change; we can provide education to our members and we can provide legal advocacy,” she continued. “For foreign education workers, it’s a lot harder because often there’s very low Korean language proficiency for foreign teachers and the system is not at all designed for foreign workers.”

Organizers are to hold a press conference and meeting on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the KCTU headquarters in Seoul.

South Korea has some 83,000 cram schools and approximately 14,000 foreign English teachers working at such institutions on E1 and E2 visas. Organizers said they are looking forward to bringing in other types of teachers to join their unionizing efforts to reform Korea’s private academy industry in general.

“The Korea I know is a place where there is compassion and there is an incredible commitment to fighting for justice and human rights. That’s why this country’s been to war. That’s why so many people have struggled.

"It’s around principles of harmony and benevolence. We’re just asking for that to be extended to the farthest reaches of experience and need,” said Tanguay-Koo.