Friday, June 19, 2009

A Hagwon Acting Like a Hagwon

Here's the question:

I finished a year contract with a large hagwon in Jangsan (Busan) at the end of March this year. I received my final pay check and severance (it was short a hundred thousand won or so, but I didn't think it was worth making a fuss about), but I have not yet received money for my airfare. According to my contract, the employer either buys my ticket home or pays me the equivalent in cash, and since I have remained in Korea (I have signed a new contract with a different school and am still in Jangsan, Busan), I asked for the cash, which I was told may take a few weeks to process. Since I left the school, I have had no correspondence with them, and have written to them twice (I've included a copy of the emails, sent May 28th, and today, June 16th, below). I have the feeling they are trying to just ignore me until I "go away" so they get out of paying the airfare. I'm not a confrontational person, and this could be a simple matter, but I'm worried they will make it into a big deal. In short, I would really appreciate your advice about what I should do. How long should I wait before I contact them again? If they refuse to pay my airfare or continue to ignore me, what are my options? I do not want to cause trouble, I just want what is owed to me.

A hagwon trying to cheat someone out of cash? You don't say. That's what hagwons do. They are money making enterprises and care about little else. Understanding that is important as it will help you while working there and trying to comprehend the logic behind management decision-making (or lack thereof), but that's only half the battle. Dealing with one that is trying to get away with something after you have left is a whole other ball game.

When you get down to the brass tacks, the purpose of the hagwon is not education. It's not about providing top-notch anything. It's about making as much money as possible and many of them do pretty damn well. Those of us who have worked in one know this better than the rest. Cutting corners, paying late and skirting laws are all common practice in hagwons. And while many expats can coast in and out of these places with relative ease, some good and honest teachers get caught.

So, let's get into this now. You mentioned you are unconfrontational. Well, that's going to hurt you in this case. You must be persistent as hell. If you relent one bit, then you can kiss your cash good-bye. In my experience, Korean bosses are infinitely unconfrontational. We could argue why, but some of it certainly stems from what Koreans call "nunchi". I call it tact. The problem is that Koreans view "tact" in terms of avoiding embarrassment and respecting status. This obsession with status and shame can create problems for Westerners as many of us try to meet a problem head-on regardless of who or what said problem might be. This is in direct conflict with Korean interaction which some might come to view as inaction. It is more important for a Korean to maintain nunchi so that han can be avoided, but I digress. Bottom line is that there is a deeply rooted culture of avoidance of direct confrontation. Calling an individual out is not common practice. Therefore, you must be the one to act because they certainly will not. (I'll be telling a related story on the podcast this evening.)

First, you gotta go there as much as possible. They're really hoping that you'll disappear or "go away" as you mentioned, but you need to show up there in the morning, afternoon and evening. Give them a call and try to make an appointment. Be professional. If they give you the run around, then you'll just need to stop by. Perhaps getting in contact with a current teacher there for some inside info about when the director is in his/her office might help. Let management know that you have not and will not forget about the money that is owed to you. Their dislike of direct confrontation will play against them in this case and if you are relentless enough, then they will cave. Being relentless is a must, but you should approach your director in a way that respects their system (nunchi) while being forceful. Start out friendly with all of your paperwork (make copies) in hand and then, if they are still being difficult, give them the old "Well, the Labor Board will be contacting you soon."

However, nothing is full-proof in a situation like this. Since you have done very well and kept all the emails and contracts, you have one last option that won't cost you anything. Just as you threatened: go to the Labor Board. File a claim with them or give them a ring and see what they have to say. The link I provided lists numbers and even lawyer numbers. Use it. Now, don't think that the Labor Board is going to spend that much time on your case. They probably won't, but typically the shady hagwons are the ones who are cheating teachers and if they cheat one or are shady in one area, chances are that they are shady in another area. Often times, a simple threat is enough to get a school moving. After all, if all they want is to make money, then paying a teacher what is owed is much cheaper than being investigated or closed down by the authorities.

Take it slow at first, but always be strong and forceful. Let them know that you WILL be recieving that money one way or another. The second they flinch, jump on it.

Does anybody have personal experience with back air-travel pay?

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment.

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