The Korea Herald


[New Neighbors] ‘We are workers in Korea too’: Foreign English hagwon teachers fight for annual leave

By Elise Youn

Published : March 11, 2024 - 17:32

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Foreign Language Education Workers’ Union members and staff hold a press conference advocating for native English teachers’ right to take annual leave, in front of the Busan Regional Office of the Ministry of Employment and Labor, Jan. 31. (Courtesy of Foreign Language Education Workers’ Union Busan Branch) Foreign Language Education Workers’ Union members and staff hold a press conference advocating for native English teachers’ right to take annual leave, in front of the Busan Regional Office of the Ministry of Employment and Labor, Jan. 31. (Courtesy of Foreign Language Education Workers’ Union Busan Branch)

Native English teachers have become an essential part of South Korea‘s education system over the past three decades in a country where learning English is crucial to finding a quality job. However, many are concerned their rights as education workers are being violated, particularly concerning their freedom to choose when and how long they can take their vacation days — their only opportunity to reunite with their families far away.

“We often face problems with our annual leave. Some common issues include: getting fewer leave days than we should, companies deciding our leave days without asking or consulting us, not getting paid for the leave that we take -- wage theft, essentially,“ Nicholas Danton (pseudonym, name withheld), an American English teacher in Busan, said into the microphone on Jan. 31 at a rally held in front of the Busan Regional Office of the Ministry of Employment and Labor.

The speakers from the Foreign Language Education Workers’ Union were advocating for native English hagwon teachers to be able to exercise their right to take paid annual leave in accordance with Korean labor law. They cited a 2021 Supreme Court ruling against including any clauses substituting or restricting annual leave in individual employment contracts.

The union, formed last year under the Korea General League of Unions, under the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, represents English education workers in the country’s private academies and public schools, the majority of whom are not regular workers.

The right to take annual leave has come to the fore amid a stream of complaints by native English teachers of unlawful acts, exploitation and abuse in the country’s private education industry, including: discriminatory hiring practices and treatment of foreign teachers; physical and psychological abuse; invasions of privacy and personal medical information; employers withholding letters of release so that foreign teachers cannot change jobs; and employers registering teachers as independent contractors without their knowledge to avoid paying insurances.

A search for “annual leave“ last year in Facebook group LOFT: Legal Office for Foreign Teachers, a teacher-organized mutual legal aid group with 15,243 members as of March 6, showed 101 posts, most of which were requesting legal advice.

“Annual leave is the tip of the iceberg,” said Danton, 35.

Triple bind

Korean national workers in the private education industry face similar restrictions on taking annual leave.

But native English teachers – many of whom are from the seven countries permitted to teach conversational English on the E-2 visa, Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the US – find themselves in a triple bind amid harsh immigration rules, “gapjil” or workplace harassment by superiors and conflicts over their basic labor rights.

“When you think of migrant workers in Korea, you usually think of Southeast Asian workers being exploited in manufacturing or rural areas,“ said Bae Seung-min, KGLU Busan’s general secretary. “No one thinks that there is a problem with the treatment of first world migrant workers when they come to Korea.”

“However … when they come to Korea, first world workers also experience Korea‘s peculiar working conditions.”

Danton said, “When we try to talk to our employers about this problem (of annual leave), they often say things that just simply aren’t true. They might claim that Korean law doesn’t apply to foreigners, or that vacation rules are different for hagwons.”

“This is not only unfair to us as workers but also shows how quickly they are to treat us unfairly just because we’re not Korean.”

In today’s hypercompetitive Korea, where 26 trillion won ($20 billion) was spent on private education in 2022, families invest an average of 123,000 won per month into English classes per child, according to data from Statistics Korea and the Education Ministry.

The country’s English boom began in the 1990s, with globalization leading to the 1991 announcement of the expansion of English teaching to all elementary school grades and 1994 revision of the college entrance exam to focus on English communication competence over grammar.

The Korea Immigration Service launched the E-2 visa to hire conversational language instructors on a fixed-contract basis from seven major English-speaking countries in 1993.

The number of native English teachers on the E-2 working in hagwons and public schools grew to 23,300 in 2010 and then declined. Despite Korea’s falling birth rate, spending on private education has continued to rise and the industry to expand, leading to a plateau in the number of native English teachers on E-2 visas after 2018, reaching 13,508 in 2021.

Jack Anderson (pseudonym, name withheld), 30, first came to Korea eight years ago fresh out of college in the US seeking “a learning experience, a challenge.”

Arriving at age 22 to teach elementary and middle schoolers at a private academy in Jinju, he was soon faced with overwork.

“Throughout my first year in Korea, I didn’t really get the chance to go out very often. … I was working nine hours straight with no breaks most days,” he said, and the hagwon didn’t allow him to take any annual leave at all.

He moved to Busan with the expectation of a better working environment, but felt his rights were being violated in the new, large academy there as well, he said.

The hagwon management restricted employees to taking annual leave on five predetermined days in summer and five in winter only, when the hagwon closed during school vacations.

An English hagwon classroom An English hagwon classroom

According to the Labor Standards Act, paid annual leave of 11-25 days, depending on how long they have worked at a given company, is guaranteed to all workers at companies with five or more employees, and can be freely chosen by each worker.

“For a lot of foreigners who live here, it’s very important for us to be able to use our vacation time to visit our home countries, or when our parents visit us,” Danton said, “But they were basically deciding your vacation days for you. And it would again often be like a random Wednesday off with very little notice.”

It is also common practice for hagwons to make foreign teachers hire and pay their own substitutes when taking those days off, which is against immigration rules.

Some foreign teachers and Bae of KGLU Busan, said that a workers‘ representative provision in Korean labor law provided “a giant loophole” that some hagwon exploited to restrict teachers’ annual leave.

If more than half of the employees in a hagwon with five or more employees agree, a workers’ representative can be appointed and an agreement between the employer and that individual can mandate when employees take their annual leave.

But the lack of specific guidelines on how the worker representative is selected means the process is often not transparent or democratic, they said.

One owner of a large hagwon in Seoul who requested anonymity described a haphazard legal landscape, where “each hagwon is different,” with many hagwon directors lacking knowledge of labor law or simply not following it when it comes to employee annual leave.

Unlike public schools, hagwons are for-profit education providers that prioritize the demands of the parents who pay for the service. If these demands are not prioritized, hagwons fear losing students, thus, losing “money,” according to the owner.

Not just foreign teachers

Danton believes that the problem of not being able to freely choose annual leave is widespread in Korea.

“It’s a generalized problem in Korean society,” he said, adding that a Korean friend of his who recently had a baby felt he could not take paternity leave, as he feared repercussions for his career.

Korea ranked fifth out of the 38 OECD member countries in the number of annual hours worked per employee in 2022, and near the bottom -- 35th out of 41 countries -- in work-life balance overall, according to the OECD’s most recent well-being report in 2020.

Meanwhile, 66.5 percent of the country’s millennials and Generation Z picked work-life balance as the top factor in determining a decent job, according to a 2022 Korea Enterprises Federation survey of 1,000 respondents.

Yet as of March last year, 8 out of 10 workers were unable to use their annual leave, according to a survey of 1,000 office workers here by civic group Workplace Gabjil 119, which assists victims of workplace abuse.

“When we think about annual paid leave, we need to remember that these rights are in place to ensure all workers have the time they need for making personal and family life a priority,” said Elspeth Teagarden Tanguay-Koo, a language education specialist.

“When this paid leave is unlawfully taken away, workers lack the necessary time resources to participate fully in society.”

Native English teacher Jack Anderson (pseudonym) joins friends for rafting on a day off from work in Sancheong-gun, South Gyeongsang Province, August 2022. (Courtesy of Jack Anderson) Native English teacher Jack Anderson (pseudonym) joins friends for rafting on a day off from work in Sancheong-gun, South Gyeongsang Province, August 2022. (Courtesy of Jack Anderson)

This is the fourth installment of a series of features, analyses and interviews exploring the challenges faced by Koreans and foreigners in creating a more diverse society in a South Korea rapidly shifting away from its homogeneous past. – Ed.