Teachers organise to counter poor treatment and a tarnished image, reports Liz Ford.
Friday June 24, 2005 Guardian Weekly
English-language teachers in South Korea are to set up a national union to counter a backlash against foreign workers. Last month delegates at a conference organised by Asian EFL Journal, attended by some 400 teachers, agreed to press ahead with "long overdue" plans to establish a union in order to protect teachers' rights. The union would be the first of its kind for English language teachers in the country.
An official from the ministry of labour told Learning English that any foreigners working in the country legally had the right to unionise. English teachers who work on government education programmes are already entitled to join the union for native Korean teachers, although applying can be a long process.
The move has been prompted by recent attacks on the profession in Korea. A documentary that portrayed English teachers as lazy and unqualified, broadcast on national television earlier this year, coupled with salacious comments about where to meet Korean women, discovered on the talkboards of a website specifically for English teachers - Englishspectrum.com - caused widespread consternation in the local press and sparked an online petition to keep foreigners out of the country.
This was followed in March by the high-profile arrest of two Canadian teachers who were jailed and later deported following a fight outside a bar in Seoul. One of the Canadian teachers was believed to be working in the country illegally.
The Korean government has been on a mission to expel illegal foreign workers for some time. Although the justice ministry denies there is a renewed crackdown, there does seem to be a more concerted effort to clean up the ELT sector, with raids on schools and the arrest of owners and teachers.
Four Korean recruiters were recently fined up to $10,000 for employing illegal teachers. And in March, police raided 28 English language schools in the southern city of Busan and arrested their owner for employing unqualified teachers who were working in the country on tourist visas. Some of the teachers were believed to be from Russia and Turkey who were being passed off as native English teachers.
Official figures put the number of English teachers working legally in Korea at 7,800, but the number of those working without the necessary papers is believed to be significant. The government would not speculate, but two years ago the Korea Times put the figure at close to 20,000.
An increase in the number of hagwon - privately run schools - set up in the country over the past 10 years to meet the growing demand for English language lessons has been partly blamed for the rise in illegal workers. Owners of some of these schools regularly flout labour and immigration laws, turning a blind eye to standards and employing foreigners without visas and, in some cases, with fake qualifications.
Caroline Linse, an associate professor at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul, says the sector should be more demanding. "Anyone working with children should have the appropriate background check. People need a commitment to teach children. My concern is not a lot of people are talking about the issue."
While moves to clean up the industry have been largely welcomed by the EFL community, which believes it will ensure quality, it has also brought into focus the lack of rights afforded to teachers working in the country legally. The attacks on the profession do not appear to have deterred teachers from working in the country, but there are concerns that forcing schools to uphold standards could have a negative impact on them.
According to EFL-law.com, more than 20 teachers a week have serious contractual disputes with their employees, while a further 50 to 70 encounter minor problems.
"The most urgent thing is dismissal," says Davidson, who is one of the teaching union organisers. "As soon as someone is dismissed they have to leave Korea, so you can't fight for your rights."
The debate comes as the Korean government tries to increase the number of native English teachers in the country. According to reports in the Korea Times, the government wants to recruit more than 900 teachers in the capital alone to boost language learning in schools. It is also keen to encourage more "English villages" (all-English activity centres), which give students full immersion teaching.