Contracts for ESL Teachers
Contract disputes between ESL teachers and their employers are not uncommon, especially with hagwon owners, but universities and corporations are not exempt either. The situation is improving, but many in Koreans still view a contract as a step in building a relationship, as a rough working document that is subject to change as the relationship develops – after the teacher has arrived in country. Traditionally, a written contact was more of a ‘formality’ with the ‘real’ contract being the unwritten or oral agreement between parties. That said, many employers expect their employees to adhere to their written obligations and will view a contract violation by a foreign worker as a serious breach. Korean employees do no commonly take their employee to court over a contract dispute, but that, too, is slowly changing. It is important to keep these cultural aspects in mind when negotiating/signing your contract.
Verbal agreements are not legally binding in Korea no matter what your recruiter or possible future employer tells you. Do not expect a verbal agreement to be honoured - it may be if the employer is willing, but there's no guarantee. You may want to be wary of anyone who tries to avoid putting anything in writing.
You are not a Teacher. Even though you will be refered to as a 'teacher' you are not in fact a 'teacher' legally. Your legal designation in Korea is 'instructor'.
Negotiating your contract is one of the most critical steps in the process of coming to work in Korea. The process itself will foretell a great deal about your possible future experiences. Many elements one might take as a given in one’s home country are not necessarily so in Korea and you do need to ask questions about everything. Taking things for granted could result in some unpleasant surprises, mainly because of culture and life style differences.
Contracts for teaching positions should include provisions for the following: salary, housing, airplane tickets home, working hours, class size, severance pay, taxes, and medical insurance. (See below on this page and elsewhere in this section for more details on each of these issues). If these items are not included in the original contract document, you may want to try and have them added. If the employer refuses, this could be a sign of the future and you may want to think twice about taking the job. It’s possible you’ll have to work a little harder to find people who will agree to a clear and specific contract, but they are out there. Regardless of the traditional attitude toward contracts, nothing beats getting it in writing. Important Note: Only the Korean-language version of the contract is legally binding in Korea.
Contracts are generally for one year (12 months) especially for teachers. You cannot leave your position, even if, in your view, your employer is in ‘breach of contract’. In Korea, your employer must sign a letter of release before you can get another job prior to the termination of your contract – even if you haven’t been paid in months, or even if you have been 'fired' after 5 or 11 months.
Do your Homework, not just about the Korean culture and the wonderful aspects of this fascinating society, but also about both the advantages and pitfall of teaching positions. There are many excellent sources out there including EFL-Law, which will provide you with a lot of valuable information on contracts http://www.efl-law.com/contracts.php and http://forums.eslcafe.com/korea/ among others.
Termination/Unfair Dismissal: If your contract is terminated early without cause (and you'll want to read carefully what your contract may state as cause for dismissal) there are steps you can take. More and more foreign instructors are winning cases agains employers in Korea (even after the employee has left the country). For more information on how to proceed, see Disputes with Employers in this section or type 'Disputes with Employers' or Ministry of Employment and Labor in the search box above.
List of Deceptive Practices from EFL-Law, who also point out that hagwons (private language institutes) are the most frequent offenders in this area. For more details, click on http://www.efl-law.com/deceptive-practices.php#4
a) Dismissal at the 11 Month Mark of the Contract
b) Dismissal at the 5 Month Mark of a Contract
c) Teacher Assaulting Students
d) Shared Accommodation With Strangers
e) Flouting Immigration Law
f) School Being Sold to New Owner
g) School Borrowing Money From Teacher
h) Airfare Calculations
i) Apartment Security Deposit
j) The EPIK Renewal Process
k) Misleading Vague Contractual Conditions On Working Times
l) Racial Discrimination
m)Work Illegally or be Dismissed
n) Health Insurance
o) Employer seeking Recruiter's Commission back
p) False Job advertising
q) Two bank books
Salary: Most contracts provide either for a set monthly salary or for a salary based on the number of hours taught. The definition of hours can vary and/or the school’s situation could change, so it’s important to ensure that a guaranteed monthly payment is included in the contract. Payment dates, methods, and currency (a few companies pay in USD or peg the KRW to the USD) should be specified in advance.
Working Hours: Most institutes require foreign instructors to teach 5 to 6 hours a day, Monday through Friday, not necessarily consecutively. Some institutes ask instructors to teach on Saturday mornings as well. University departments usually require instructors to teach 10 to 15 hours a week, and to participate in student activities and in the editing of school newspapers. Research institutes usually require instructors to work 40 hours a week and do occasional overtime without compensation.
The definition of ‘an hour’ can vary. For some hagwons, only those minutes spent in the classroom are included, so an hour may be only 45 minutes. Ask for a definition and get it in writing in the contract.
Overtime: May not be based on your teaching hours, but on a 40-hour week. If you do work overtime, you are entitled to be paid at the same rate as your regular hourly pay. Overtime also applies to Sundays. Clarify your potential employer's definition of overtime and try to have that included in the contract, along with the pay you would receive. In Korea, overtime is paid at a rate of 150% (time and a half) of your average hourly wage. If your employer prefers to give you lieu time (time off instead of pay) the lieu time is to be calculated at 150% as well and not as equal time.
Keep a Record: Keep your own journal of when you work (start and end times/dates/etc) including regular hours and overtime. Record also when you have taken lieu-time noting the overtime period covered by the time off (do the same with overtime pay). This will be helpful if there is a dispute at some point in your contract or even to calculate the overtime due you (many employers are not able record keepers or if you have puch/time cards, these may inadvertently be misplaced or destroyed).
Class Size: Private institutions (hagwons) generally have 10 to 15 students in a class, while universities may have as many as a hundred.
Air Fare: If the employer has offered to cover your transportation to Korea and back to your home country, this should be included in the contract. Despite promises by institutes to provide tickets home upon completion of a contract or to reimburse teachers for the trip to Korea, some foreign teachers have found themselves in the position of having to pay their own air fare in the end. Try requesting an open-ended round trip ticket in advance. If you can only get a one-way ticket, you’ll want to have the promise of your paid return in writing. (Still, you’ll want to make sure you always have enough money to pay for your return yourself – the embassies here are not in a position to help teachers finance their return tickets.) Not all employers pay air fare; this applies especially to universities.
The value of the airfare should be stated in KRW (Korean won) in your contract so that should there be a dispute, the court or labor board/commission will know how much your employer actually owes you. (They will not work on converting it from your currency to won after the fact). Determining the value is a civil court process (small claims court in most instances) and that requires that the value in KRW be clearly stated in the contract.
Return airfare dependent on completion on 12 month contract - this is often included in the contract. Unfortunately, some unscrupulous employers will terminate an instructors employment just short of the 12-months to avoid paying the return airfare and the severance to which the employee is entitled.
Severance: Your contract may state that you will receive a 'bonus' payment of one month's wages at the end of the contract. This usally means the 'severance pay' that is due to every worker in Korea - foreign and local alike. Employers/recruiters explain their use of the term 'bonus' as a way to make it easier for the foreign employee to understand.
For more details on severance look in Working and Business - Salary Deductions/Benefits or type 'Severance' in the searach box above. Note: Severance pay will be vested in the pension plan in 2011, and from that date companies will decide individually if they with the continue the Severance Pay system for them employees or move to one of the 'pension' options.
As mentioned above in the airfaire section, employers sometimes try to get out of paying severance by dismissing the instructor in the 11th month.
Holidays: Your contract should specify paid holidays and holidays-without-pay. It should also indicate if the teacher is expected to make up the holiday or day off. Some employers, including unviversities, have begun having teachers make up classes that had to be cancelled due to statutory holidays.
Housing: Employers usually provide housing for their teachers, but not always. This can be a serious problem, as housing in Korea, Seoul especially, is very expensive. Even if the monthly rent is reasonable, getting into a place initially can be very costly. If your institute does not provide housing, it should at least be able to help you find accommodation and negotiate the appropriate rent and utility payments. An employer may offer a set monthly sum to cover housing costs. Do your research first and make sure that it will cover your actual accommodation costs and/or the basic cost of moving in. What may seem like a princely sum in your home country may not get you much in Korea. Get as much detail as possible written into the country: type of housing, shared or single, size (they’ll give you ‘pyong’ but the law now requires the metric system be used), definition of furnished, and if possible, photos. Specify also who is responsible for paying utilities and get a list/definition of utilities. (Note: some employers deduct utilities from their teacher’s salaries but if they are low on cash, don’t pay the bills, leaving the teacher to pay twice if he/she wants heat, light, cooking fuel, cable, etc.).
Housing options include: the key money system (yearly deposit); monthly rent; shared housing; and dormitories, lodging houses and inns. For more information on housing, type 'housing' in the search box above.
Health Coverage: The majority of English Instructors are entitled to Korean Medical Health Insurance (for exemptions see Health Insurance under Salary Deductions/Benefits in this Working and Business section). You know your employer is submitting the payments if you receive a Health Insurance booklet each month. (Some employers prefer to put you on a private plan but you'll want to check this out to see if it's compatible with the National Health plan). For more details on health coverage in Korea, type medical insurance or health coverage in the search box above.
Pension: Most employeers - foreign and local - will have pension contributions deducted from their salary. Some foreign instructors get their contribution back at the end of their stay in Korea (or when they turn 60) while other do not. It depends on the agreements between Korean and your country. Regardless, you will want to make sure that your employer is actually remitting your pension contribution to the appropriate body and not pocketing it. For information on how you can do that and on whether or not you are eligible to get your pension contributions back (and how to go about it) see Pension in this Working and Business section or type 'pension' in the search box above.
Taxes will also be deducted from your salary. You can ensure that your employer is actually remitting those just as you can with the pension. Your employer will usually do the paperwork for your tax reconciliation but if you want to make more than the basic claims, etc. you may want to do this yourself. Tax forms are now available in English and there are a number of firm prepared to help you with your income tax claims. Foro more details click on taxes. You can also look up Incomes Taxes in this Working and Business section or type 'taxes or income taxes' in the search box above.
Unemployment Insurance: Some employers will deduct unemployment insurance contributions from English instructors salaries. Even if you cannot claim benefits, you will have to pay the premiums. You will want to make sure, however, that your employer is actually remitting the payments deducted from your pay. For more information, type 'unemployment insurance' in the search box above.
Editor's Note: The information above is based on the information K4E has available at the time of writing. Given how difficult it is to obtain clear and complete information in Korea as well as how quickly rules can change, please see this as a guide and do follow-up with the appropriate Korean government bodies to confirm its accuracy and/or to get the most current answers. K4E would appreciate your feedback should you find out that our information is out-of-date at email@example.com..
Last Updated on 2021-02-08
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