English Teacher Employment Contracts in South Korea
The Korean View
In Korea, written contracts are not considered to be as binding as they are in the U.S. or Canada; rather, they are thought of as flexible and subject to ongoing negotiations.
The “real” contract is the oral agreement with one’s employer; however, written contract violations by foreigners are not taken lightly. Consider asking for references from former employees and people whom might be familiar with the institution. Also, before signing a contract, contact the American embassy in Korea for a list of institutes, schools, and businesses that hire foreign teachers and don’t honor their contracts. If a Korean employer is treating you badly, the embassy can’t help you, but they can refer you to legal counsel. Get everything in writing and have someone available to help you with communication; only contracts written in the Korean language are legally binding in Korea. Be sure to have any contract that is written in Korean translated independently before you sign it. If you are clear about your position and negotiate calmly, then you’ll avoid hassles and misunderstandings in the future.
The most basic contract should contain provisions for housing, salary, working hours, classes taught, tickets home, severance pay, medical insurance, and taxes. You may also wish to include the stipulation that you be allowed to take on private students. If your contract does not specify your eligibility, then private tutoring is illegal. The following details about contract specifications should help you negotiate a fair contract.
- Housing: In Seoul, contracts that provide housing are rare, but your institution should at least help you locate housing and negotiate a fair lease. If you are promised housing, request photos, floorplans, and furniture inventories or you may be in for an unpleasant surprise. A furnished apartment in Korea might only include a stove – not furniture.
- Salary: You will either be paid a monthly salary or according to the number of hours you work. Regardless of the arrangement, your rate of pay, and payment dates, methods, and currency should all be clearly specified in the contract.
- Working hours: Most instructors are expected to work between ten and thirty hours each week Monday through Saturday, not including preparation time. Stipulate that you will only be there when you have scheduled classes, otherwise you may be required to be at work all day even though you only have one class. If you are unwilling to work a split schedule be sure that your contract does not require it of you. Classes are scheduled depending on demand and the availability of students, so opting out of a split work day may limit your number of working hours. Provisions for vacation lengths and dates, holidays, overtime, and sick days should also be included.
- Classes taught: Most schools contract foreign teachers specifically to teach conversational English, but you may also teach writing or prep courses for the GMAT, GRE, or TOEFL. Be clear about exactly what is expected of you: reading a sheet of dialogues for students who are taking a test is not teaching conversation.
- Tickets home: Some institutions claim to provide plane tickets home at the end of your contract, but the promise is not always honored. Consider requesting an open-ended round-trip ticket in advance.
- Severance pay (taechikum): According to Korean law, all full-time employees are entitled to a month’s worth of severance pay upon completion of one year of employment. Your employer cannot legally ask you to waive your severance pay, nor can the employer avoid paying it by contracting you for a period of eleven months. If you have problems with severance pay, contact the Ministry of Labor’s Severance Pay Division at (02) 503-9727. Their general number is (02) 500-5543 or (02) 500-5544.
- Medical insurance: Employers are required to provide medical insurance for foreign instructors, but often purchase the minimum policy (about US$500 worth of coverage). If you want more, negotiate with your employer or buy your own.
- Taxes: Employers generally withhold and pay all taxes for their foreign citizens. U.S. citizens who teach at universities, government research centers, or university-operated institutes may be exempt from paying Korean taxes for up to two years because of the U.S.-Korea Tax Treaty. Contact the Korean Tax Office the city in which you work to find out if you can claim exemption. Teachers at hagwans and private companies are generally not exempt.