This is a question from a reader who is considering coming to Korea to teach English. The only problem is that he’s wondering about the stories he keeps reading about how many ESL teachers get ripped off in Korea.
It’s true, there are plenty of stories out there. An oldie, but a goodie is this one: Prisoner of Wonderland.
I didn’t write that book, but I could have. I worked for a super-sketchy hagwon my first year in Korea, and I ended up having to go the labour board to get some money owed to me.
It was a stressful time to say the least. And, despite the hagwon I worked for being clearly in the wrong, I had to struggle to get the money owed to me. That’s similar to many a foreign teacher’s experience.
It’s a long story, but the moral of it? Do your research before signing on the dotted line. Even then, contracts sometimes (often) aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Korea’s Less than Stellar Reputation
At a hagwon, you can count yourself lucky if you only get screwed over on some small thing and not on the big stuff like your salary or plane ticket.
I personally hate how schools can hold your plane ticket and bonus money (one month’s salary) over your head as a bargaining chip. It’s actually the law that they give this stuff to you and not some “performance” bonus. Except that many English teachers don’t know this fact.
A big part of the problem and why so many teachers get ripped off working in Korean hagwons is the government agencies who are supposed to look after stuff. They essentially have no power to enforce any of their rulings.
For that, you need to move higher up into the court system which requires a lot of time, money for a lawyer and translators. Few people will go through the hassle for a couple thousand dollars.
The other problem is timing. A teacher who is leaving Korea the day after their contract (with a pre-bought) plane ticket doesn’t have time to wait around for everything to happen.
Hagwon Horror Story
Everyone is Watching out for their own Bottom Line
Recruiters are not looking out for you but are just looking to place you in a job and collect their fees. Many of them don’t really care if you get ripped off or it’s the sketchiest hagwon around.
There are a few exceptions of course. If you want to find a job through a recruiter, go with the biggest agency based in the country where you live. In Canada, you’ll probably want to stick with Footprints or Teachaway. They’ll often work with the more up and up schools and avoid the sketchy ones in order to protect their reputation.
The hagwon owner or manager is also not looking out for your best interests. They’re looking out for their bottom line. A hagwon is a business first, and school second. Keep that in mind and you’ll probably have a way better experience.
Ethics and morals are very different than what you’d expect in a Western country. The main difference is that your contract also isn’t really worth the paper it’s been written on. Relationship is everything, and a contract is just a starting point.
How Not to Get Ripped Off in Korea
If quick tips is what you’re after, you’ve come to the right place. Here are a few things to consider before signing on the dotted line to teach in South Korea.
Tip #1: Do your Research
So come to Korea to teach English, but do your research before. Ask around on ESL Cafe or Facebook for any school that you’re considering.
Get references of past teachers who’ve finished their contracts. Like 3 or 4 of them. Email or phone them. The current ones often have something to lose (airfare/bonus money) so will sometimes not tell you the real deal.
If there are no teachers who’ve finished contracts, beware. This is usually a really terrible sign.
Of course, you should also watch out for these 5 Signs of a Sketchy Hagwon.
Tip #2: Have a Showdown, if Necessary
Be prepared to stay after your contract to have a sit-in, if necessary so you can get your airfare and bonus money. Do not leave the country before you receive these things. Your school will not send it to you in America.
Also, be prepared to bail mid-contract if things look bad, which will involve having a bit of money in an emergency fund to buy a place ticket home, to Japan or China or wherever.
If you’re teaching at a school who feels like they’re under no obligation to honour your contact, please don’t feel obligated to keep up your end of it. That’s just not right!
Tip #3: Remember This!
Keep this important fact in mind when you start your first hagwon job in order to not get ripped of in Korea. A hagwon is a business.
The owner might care about their students learning English. They may not. What all of them care about is making money.
What does this mean for you? You need to keep students in the seats. This means keeping them happy, and keeping their parents who are paying the tuition happy. It’s that simple.
So, when you get feedback from the owner or manager about your teaching, don’t fight back. Just take it in, adjust and keep on rolling. This will help your relationship with you bosses go much more smoothly, and reduce your chances of getting ripped off.
The Takeaway on Getting Ripped off in Korea
It’s up to you to look after yourself, if you’re coming to Korea to teach English. No one else will will help you avoid getting ripped off in Korea.
There are a million and one hagwons to work at, they key is finding the right one with a decent owner. They are out there. Just take your time to find them.
Have your Say!
What’s your top tip for not getting ripped off in Korea? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts.
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