Native English teacher Anna Liu was coming to the end of her contract when she visited her local pension office to claim back contributions she was entitled to as a Canadian citizen. But when it came to how much she was supposedly owed, she noticed it was less than a friend on a lower salary.
“I questioned it and then that’s when the pension officer showed me and said ‘this is your reported income from your employer,’” said Liu.
Liu’s employer, the POLY Returnee Education Institute in Mapo, had underreported her monthly income, paying less into her pension than it was obligated to by law. Workers and their employers must each contribute 4.5 percent of the employee’s monthly salary to the National Pension Plan. But employees from countries with reciprocal pension agreements with Korea, including Canada and the U.S., can claim this money back after finishing their employment and leaving the country.
Confused over the discrepancy between her income and pension, Liu decided to confront the institute’s director, Cho Han-sen.
“He said to me about taxes, something about my health insurance. He kept saying my pension linked to all those because I paid less in my health insurance. I didn’t understand the connection he was putting between the two so I went to the (Seoul) Global Center,” she said.
There, according to Liu, a Korean legal counsel told her he recognized what her employer had done but to “leave it” be. So began a series of visits back and forth between Seoul Global Center, the pension office and her local labor office with a Korean-speaking friend, according to Liu.
“We even went to the labor ministry for foreigners (Labor Board office) in that area. That man (staffer at the labor officer) ... actually called and talked to my boss and my boss tried to explain it to him. He (the staffer) didn’t understand. Then he tried to ask his supervisor. Apparently the supervisor said that was not their department,” said Liu.
Illustration by Park Gee-young
Eventually, after providing the pension office with documentation proving her case and writing a report of the incident on their website, Liu saw a breakthrough.
“They called my boss and asked him to clarify. According to the officer, my boss told him he made a mistake. He just changed the numbers,” said Liu, explaining how her boss rectified the discrepancy after her third or fourth trip to the pension office.
But Liu’s ordeal was far from over. She said her boss sent her dozens of text messages telling her she’d be sorry for telling the pension office and Labor Board and that she was messing him around.
“So what he did was he cancelled my plane ticket home. He called the travel agent and cancelled it. I had to buy my own ticket home,” she said.
Cho confirmed to The Korea Herald that Liu’s salary had been incorrectly reported to the pension office but blamed it on a mistake by his accountant. He said he had cancelled Liu’s plane ticket after the pension office had forced him to cover her half of pension and health insurance contributions as well as his own, which he felt was unfair. He said he had nowhere else to deduct money from as Liu had ceased employment at the school and was no longer on a salary.
When contacted by The Korea Herald, a staffer at the Mapo pension office claimed it had no record of Liu’s case, while two other staffers said the office could not release details of specific cases. But the office did confirm that employers can be held liable for the full amount of an underreported pension as it is their responsibility to pay the correct amount into the national plan. The office can also seize the assets of employers guilty of misconduct.
Liu went back to the Labor Board where she was told there was nothing they could do about the plane ticket, even though a return ticket had been included in her teaching contract.
“They said that they do not handle the situation if it has anything other than to do with pay. They said I had to get a lawyer. My fees for the lawyer would (have) cost more than my plane ticket.”
Liu said she didn’t know whether her employer had suffered any sanctions for his conduct.
The Labor Board confirmed to The Korea Herald that it did not deal with issues unrelated to salary including pensions or plane tickets. The board acts as intermediary in disputes between employers and employees but has no legal authority to enforce decisions or impose sanctions.
Although she was never reimbursed for her plane ticket, Liu received the pension money owed to her several weeks after returning to Canada.
She warned other native English teachers to be vigilant against discrepancies between their paycheck and their pension.
“Anything can be happen, you just have to be prepared. And always, I guess, you make sure you know to check everything. I trusted him a lot and that’s why I never thought he would do that to my pension.”
By John Power and Jenni Jung (firstname.lastname@example.org