Foreign English teachers in South Korea can take advantage of affordable legal help through the KangNam Labor Law Firm’s Legal Assurance Program.
The firm, based in Seoul, has been offering services such as legal counsel and mediation affordable for English teachers, which has allowed several expat teachers to form unions.
The new Legal Assurance program offers many of the same benefits, including access to online resources, advice about conflict resolution, mediation and help filing legal claims if necessary. Now, however, individual teachers who are not union members may enjoy much of the same services.
For a monthly fee of 20,000 won, English teachers can have access to the full range of legal services offered by the firm on a group retainer.
Attorney Jung Bong-soo of the firm said that those foreign teachers who have taken advantage of legal services were referred to them by the Association for Teachers of English in Korea, and credited the organization’s referrals as being instrumental in beginning the Legal Assurance Program. Participants need not be ATEK members, however.
ATEK president Greg Dolezal said a key difference in the Legal Assurance Program from what the unions receive is the lack of collective bargaining. However, teachers working with the law firm alone would have access to the same resources without paying additional fees of union dues and funding for the union’s activities.
Also, an individual acting alone would have the same resources available to union members without drawing the attention that a union would bring.
“Not many people are excited about forming a union yet because they’re not sure of what’s going to happen with it,” Dolezal said.
“This is something that people can do rather quietly. The employer does not have to know.”
Jung Bong-soo said that at the moment he is working with five or six ATEK members who have formed unions on cases such as improper dismissal or unpaid wages.
The first of those teachers to form a labor union was Evan Lloyd, who came to Korea in July. In September, Lloyd said he started talking to ATEK about problems at his Incheon-area workplace -- which he asked not to be identified -- and they referred him to Jung.
In December the union was officially formed. It currently has four members, all of whom are E-2 visa holders. Collective bargaining between the union and its employer are among the benefits members have received.
“The union also allows us to keep Mr. Jung on permanent retainer so that any potential problems are looked at by a legal professional. His help also ensures that the union is run according to the appropriate Korean labor laws,” he said.
Lloyd said it was important to note that, while their union was established by foreign employees, they would welcome any Korean employees who wished to join.
“This is not a union exclusively for foreigners, but so far the Korean staff has not expressed any interest in joining,” he said.
Chris Backe, an English teacher best-known among expats here as the blogger Chris in South Korea, said that teachers here have been in need of a service like the Legal Assurance Program.
“The Legal Assurance Program offers a benefit that didn’t previously exist to foreigners,” he said. “Without legal coverage, any legal problems would have had to be helped by charity, an organization like the Seoul Global Center, or by hiring an expensive lawyer.
“Since most problems are not substantial enough to merit hiring a lawyer, that meant the school ‘got away with it’ because the teacher had no recourse.”
In a little more than two years of teaching, Backe said that he has seen examples of schools that exploited teachers’ lack of access to legal help.
“Hopefully the program will discourage schools from trying to take advantage of a teacher that doesn’t know their legal rights,” he said. “Schools have a strong incentive to keep their teachers in the dark about what can and can’t be done -- this is one incentive to help keep them legal.”
Backe’s support for the plan comes despite some recent criticism of ATEK, which he wrote had largely failed to produce tangible results for teachers here.
“I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of progress from ATEK recently. This program is one concrete sign that the wheels are turning in the right directions. While I respect the need to build goodwill and create associations, members do have a right to ask what’s happening, and know what’s going on behind the scenes,” he said.
“Communication should be getting better in the near future as a fellow blogger (Rob Ouwehand) takes over as the National Communications Director.”
Dolezal said that ATEK has referred teachers to many law firms across Korea, but KangNam Labor Law Firm is the first to create a program specially designed to meet the needs of expat teachers. Though the firm is based in Seoul, the Legal Assurance Program will not be limited to teachers in the Seoul area.
Both ATEK and the KLLF said they hope that as demand grows this will cause Korean attorneys to offer specialized services for foreign teachers across the country.
By Rob York (firstname.lastname@example.org