Dear Dr. Spilchuk…
My School Appears to be Shafting Foreign Teachers
Dear Dr. Spilchuk,
I have read your articles in the International School Review and find them very interesting and informative. I will try to make a fairly long story short. Hopefully you will find it interesting. I am a teacher at an International School in South Korea. I taught 30 years in my own country, retired and began teaching internationally.. After teaching here 2 years I extended my contract by one year until June 2007. The school is small, has one of the lowest salaries in South Korea, but fairly good working conditions, great students and a rather high turnover (most teachers stay for 2 years and move on).
Last June, a fellow teacher who was leaving at the end of her contract, had been told by Korean friends to be certain that the school paid her the severance pay (taechicum) of 1 month for each year worked which was mandated by South Korean Labor Law. She had never heard of this (none of us had). So she enquired and was told that there was a clause in her contract saying thatseverance was included in her salary so the school owed her nothing. After checking our contracts, there is a line, which says, “pension is included in salary” but no mention of severance pay.
So she went to the labor board and filed a complaint. Since she was leaving for the US, she asked me if I would represent her if and when there was a hearing. Curious about this, I said yes. I did some research and learned quite a few very interesting things including, to my surprise, that she seems to be totally correct about being paid severance pay. According to the labor standards act of South Korea (LSA) all employers with more than 5 full time employees must pay each full time employee that has worked for more than a year a severance, which accrues by 1-month average salary for each year worked. Also according to the LSA, the main parts of the law should be explained to employees (this info is carefully withheld because I never heard a peep about it in more than 2 years). According to the LSA, severance cannot be included into the salary unless the employee asks for it. There also has been a South Korean Supreme Court decision in 2005 stating that severance pay cannot be included in the salary even if the two parties agree…
Firstly, the clause in the contract uses the word pension not severance. Secondly, no teachers asked to have severance included in the salary because they did not even know about it nor the law. Thirdly, this non-payment of severance to foreign teachers has been going on for several years (they do pay it to their Korean staff though). This means the school advertises salary differently from other schools and in a misleading way to make it appear about 2000$ higher than it really is.
In mid September there was a hearing about the teacher’s complaint, I presented the case with supporting documents, all went well (the labor officer seemed very sympathetic). The representative of the school who should have been present was conveniently out of the country on other business. So he was to go at another date, then we were to go back together to have a chance to hear and argue against the other party’s position. The school administrator eventually went to the labor office to make his arguments and told the labor officer that it was not necessary to set a new date for a hearing where both sides would be present because he would settle the issue with me (to my satisfaction?).
After a couple of weeks of waiting for a new hearing I called the labor board (always through an interpreter) and was told what had happened. I informed the labor officer that I knew nothing of this and had not been contacted so that I wanted a hearing date to be set where both parties would be present. I am waiting for a new hearing date.
Obviously, the employer is not happy with the plaintiff and probably not with me for representing her at the labor board. (Winning this case would mean that all teachers would be eligible for severance pay.) I doubt that they will offer to renew my contract next year, but I don’t think that they will fire me outright. They can’t really blackball me, as I don’t go to job fairs. I have an excellent record, well-appreciated and excellent letters of reference and am in a field (chemistry, physics and math) where competition is not too great.
I have met with the other teachers twice to keep them informed that the issue exists and is being pursued and that the outcome could affect us all. I do know that the school does not want this to go public. I am quite certain that the school does not want to get into a huge confrontation with the teachers about this. This could really hurt their recruiting efforts. Also if they have to advertise the real salary (without including severance), it is even less competitive than everyone thought.
So far everything has been discrete and professional. I suspect that the school might be willing to enter into an agreement and offer to pay at least part of what they owe to present teachers but I think the school does not want to have to pay the teachers that have left (teachers have 3 years to make a complaint after they have left their employer). The directors (2 brothers) have been in the US visiting family but are returning this coming weekend. I think I will have to meet with them to find a solution to this situation. I want this to be done fairly and professionally. It appears that the school has been shafting trusting foreign teachers for some time. Ethics may not be their strong point.
Here are my questions:
1. Should I meet with the directors before the final hearing at the labor board?
Absolutely! Tell them that you have already contacted ISR and are prepared to go public if the parties cannot find a reasonable compromise. A severance package that includes a bonus for each year of service, incrementally increasing up to and then past a successful two years of service is the norm in Asian countries for remuneration.
2. I would prefer not to meet with the directors alone but most teachers are afraid to get involved, any suggestions?
Talk to your embassy. Often they do not like to become involved, however, perhaps they will in this circumstance. Is there any reason you could not take a local lawyer along to this meeting? It might be worth the cost.
3. How do I get into the negative consequences of getting into a battle with the teachers without appearing to make threats?
Unfortunately, you can’t. Teachers are quite typically fairly weak-kneed. It is only those very special few who will take on the ‘establishment’ and insist upon fair and just due process. For the most part, teachers tend to agree behind closed doors, but will not come out of the closet for fear of job retribution. Your specialization places you above black-balling – no doubt! But for other teachers, this is their livelihood. I am not saying this is right; I am simply stating what you can expect. Teachers do not generally seem to understand that the togetherness of a staff on issues of fairness and justice will often win the day. After all, what would the school do? Replace all of you with one fell swoop? Not likely! The parents would have much to say about that and this is a private school dependent upon parental funding.
4. Can you make suggestions as to how to deal with this whole situation?
I suggest that you talk to a local lawyer. Also, keep trying to get the staff to support the position you have taken. In the end, you must also look after yourself, however. Use my name freely in whatever way you think might assist you. In the meantime, look to other educational institutions over there. The following is the name of a fellow I had contact with when I was considering working in South Korea. He seemed like a lovely person. You might try this institution. He may remember me; it has been two years, however:
Rod Pederson, Ph.D.
Department of TESOL-MALL
World Language Institute
17-2 Jayang-Dong dong-ku
Taejon, 300-718, Korea
Tel: (042) 630-9245 / H.P.: (042) 638-0761
Fax: (042) 631-3180
If you want additional information, please let me know. I believe this situation will certainly affect all of the teachers at the school monetarily if you stand together, so good luck!
As one Canuck to another, I wish you God speed and best wishes.
Feel that northern love coming your way!