Sunday, August 8, 2010

Koreans and Contracts

Here is something that would have made a difference to me when I first came to Korea if I had known it. Something anyone considering coming to South Korea should know beforehand. Your contract can, and if you work for a hagwon probably will, be ignored for cultural reasons.

On April 23, 2010 a mandatory seminar for all teachers working in Hagwons was held. One part of it that stuck in my craw concerned contracts. Basically, it is government policy (this seminar was held on behalf of the government after all) that contracts are not binding.

Yes, a contract, according to the Korean government, is not binding. Contracts are considered a starting point not an ending one. A starting point for what wasn't mentioned? A starting point for future negotiation with the Hagwon having the upper hand? A starting point to show that you have agreed to terms to be followed and are ready to start work? Well, not the latter.

You should also expect to be asked to do things that aren't in the contract and you should accept at least part of what you are asked to do. In other words, bend over and take it up the ass. If you are lucky you will only have to take it part way and not all the way.

"Personal rapport is more important to employers and managers than legal agreements." Whether they like you or not is more important than a supposedly legally binding document. I actually heard a variation of this over the years. Often I was told that a verbal agreement is more important than a written one in Korea.

I particularly liked their comments about "never give an inch" not being the Korean way. Hagwon owners rarely ever give an inch, YOU are expected to. I only ever had one Director in Korea that understood what compromise was, and was willing to do it. And he honoured his word. Most of them don't. One of the pitfalls of working in a Hagwon. The minute you don't give an inch, hell the minute you don't agree 100% you become ... a bad teacher.

It is interesting that they don't inform you of these facts before you sign your unimportant yet supposedly legally binding agreement. Even now, it is NOT something that they are telling people who are coming to Korea. They will let you know once you are there. Maybe.

For those of you working in Korea what would your reaction have been if you saw a clause telling you this in your contract? (Of course not everyone does read through their contract ... but for those who do. ;) ) Or if you were told about it BEFORE coming to Korea?

I would have definitely thought harder about coming and it just might have been enough to make me say no. This would have seen me walking away once I started getting jerked around by a Hagwon since it essentially means that I have no recourse if they decide to ignore the agreed upon contract.


  1. When I was checking out working in Korea on the Canadian government's website, they had a special section about Korea, and they specifically mentioned this weird fact about Korean contracts.
    I think Lonely Planet might have mentioned it, too.
    The most trouble I have had with this was not the hagwon owner, but my fellow co-workers. Whenever the owner would spring some extra bit of work or hiccup in the schedule, they would more often than not cave in rather than stand together. There was always at least one who was indeed willing to "take it in the ass," to use Flint's pungent phrase.

  2. wtf?? What is this-a hagwon association seminar explaining your place on the totem pole organised by the govt.? Yes, I guess it is.

  3. This past weekend I was talking with some friends and they were asking me if I would ever come back to Korea. I said I enjoy living here but I don't like working here and I would gladly come back as long as I didn't have to have a job. So many people/jobs here are like little kids. You're playing a game and then they make up rules as they go so they can win. At least if you were working a job in your own country you could have some say over them changing your contract mid-way through, even if it meant quitting. Here, unless you're on an F visa or have a nice hagwon who will give you a letter of release, you can't quit unless you're ready to leave the country.

  4. Mr. Pharmacist.

    Yeah. And notice how important telling people their contract is meaningless is. It is cultural tip #5!

    I don't know what #1 and 2 were but 3 is Work hours and obligations, 4 is level of hierarchy, 6 is the ever dangerous plans (and notification)

    (These will be showing up on What the kimchi? soon. Didn't want to flood the site with posts. ;))

  5. Drugstore Cowgirl

    That is part of the problem with the Korean E2 VISA, you are basically owned by the school. Someone once posted an old list of the rights of an indentured servant. (Possibly on Dave's ESL.) It was scarily similar to the rights of an E2 VISA holder in South Korea.

    If I could work for my old (GOOD) Hagwon boss again I would return to South Korea. Him you could really trust. I MIGHT try a public school or University if it were in the city I want to be. But I would never go back to a Hagwon again.

  6. DC

    and as far as I know, and have read, Korea is the only country where you don't own your work VISA.

  7. I keep hearing visa portability is down the pipeline, but then immigration would have no one else to blame when one of the 2% of teachers commits a crime.

  8. Anonymous

    I hope it really is in the works but I have heard several times over the last 9 years that it was gong to be introduced. :)