Left High and Dry

by Mark Balfe-Taylor, 18/07/2008

Most of you probably know of someone who worked out or had a membership to California Wow Fitness. There were locations in Cheongdam, Gangnam, Myeongdong and Daegu and it was  great gym. I was recruited as a yoga manager there and like all members and staff alike, I financially lost out when the company went bankrupt. The company folded in February and here I am in July being told by my lawyer (Ed. not a firm listed in the K4E Directory) that the chances are slim I can get any money back from my losses. Why?

According to this lawyer:
• Korean Labour Law does not allow for companies with a staff of more than 300 to make a claim from the government.
• There is no money left in the company
• The CEO has not filed bankruptcy and that prevents us making a court case against him. Apparently, he doesn't have the required 70 million won necessary to file for bankruptcy. Not only that, he is missing.

I'm not alone in this situation as you can see from reason #1 above. Over 300 people were employed by this company and everyone was suddenly out of a job, almost all being owned back pay. However, for the handful of foreign employees, the situation is even worse.

We all have to pay for our own ticket back home and we have to leave the country pretty quickly – no time to wait until the situation is resolved. We can't get another job without having to leave the country
– another expense before we can start earning any revenue. In situations where the company has been providing housing, we're suddenly on the streets, in some cases with the property owner insisting we pay all outstanding monies owed by our employer. One can also understand the property owner insisting on getting payment for our utility bills, but that can present a problem when we haven't been paid for some weeks.

With luck, we have friends here or family back home willing to help us out with money for a temporary place to live, pocket money and/or our airfare out of Korea within the number of days required by immigration regulations. If you're lucky, as I've been, you have some savings you can dip into – but then, there go the savings.

In my situation as a staff member that is owed a considerable sum of money, I expected the Korean Labour Law to come to my aid. I have endured having worked for 6 weeks for free, I lost out on my return flight, I didn't get severance pay and I was abandoned to fend for myself and find my own legal representative. All my upper management turned off their cell-phones and the main human resources office closed its doors.  One day, all of a sudden, I am jobless, abandoned, and needing to stay in the country using my own savings to sort out my claim.  This is especially difficult when you are limited by language.

Through the people at Korea4Expats.com I was able to connect with a law firm that explained some of my rights to me. Many of my foreign and Korean friends believed that there was nothing a foreigner can do in these situations. In fact, that\'s not correct. We are also protected under Korean Law, and whether we are Korean or not, we do have to have a labour lawyer file our claims.

Since all of the Korean staff had decided to go with a particular firm, the foreign employees joined them. However, I believe that it is possible, to file a separate claim and am now investigating that
possibility – a firm where there are English speakers. I can't help but worry that the foreign employees may end being overlooked at the end of the day since we won't be here to stand up for ourselves or to
remind the law firm that we exist.

The poor and confusing excuses I've been given anger me further. It's possible that some of the information has been lost or twisted in translation, and that I'm not totally understanding either
the explanations or the strategies. This is where a firm with an English speaker that specialises in helping foreign employees can be a better choice.

My heart goes out to all the other victims of this company folding - employees and customers alike. I'm hoping that we won't all be left out to dry because our employer went bankrupt, something we could
neither foresee nor prevent. If the current laws are not clear or do not provide protection to workers in companies of a certain size, hopefully this situation will bring about some amendments to correct the problem, for both Korean and Foreign workers here.

Mark Balfe-Taylor is a British Bikram Yoga Certified Yoga Instructor

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