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The Globe and Mail: Canadian teachers caught in S. Korean crackdown

Here we go with another newspaper misrepresentation. But this time, it’s not the Dong-Ah or the Joongang or the Chosun Ilbo, or even the Korea Herald. It’s The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper thant just ran a story titled: Canadian teachers caught in S. Korean crackdown.

I got an email from my accountant in Montreal asking if I am okay. I got another email forwarded to me from a reporter in Saskatchewan who wants to talk to a Canadian in Korea about “the Canadian crackdown”.

Well, as far as I know, it’s not a Canadian crackdown. It’s just a crackdown on idiots.

See, here’s the thing: all you need to get a teaching job in Korea is a degree… in ANY subject. Yeah, some people realize who ridiculous this is. Some don’t. Everyone seems to think that the best way to develop one’s English is talking with native speakers, though, and most Education-majors find enough disincentives to remain that people with majors in Literature, History, Geography, Art, and other areas end up here.

Which isn’t all bad. Some of these people develop into rather good teachers, actually. Some don’t. I wouldn’t dare hazard a guess at how many go either way, except to say that whatever extreme positive developments and negative developments we see generally have very little effect on the overall education system, because the shape of the system is determined by Korean businessmen or administrators. Thus most of the benefits and some of the negatives get swept away into the noise of the system.

So anyway, as I said, it’s absolutely easy to get a job in Korea as a foreigner, as long as you’re white and a native speaker. (Nonwhite native English speakers also can do it, but unless you’re a foreign-Korean, it’s progressively less easy the darker-skinned you are, and most nonwhites find it socially difficult enough that, in my experience, they tend not to stay too long.)

This said, many private-school owners are fairly unscrupulous, as are many prospective teachers. Sometimes the school-operator hires people, promises to get the legal paperwork done, and then never bothers. Given the extreme difficulty of getting the legal issues squared away by oneself in most parts of Korea — especially one’s first time in the country — the standard practice is that school-operators bring one to the immigration office and negotiate the paperwork. But some people, either to save a little money on the legally-required end-of-contract bonus pay, or have better control over a worker (illegal status means you have to comply to unreasonable and — more importantly, uncontractual — demands without refusal or complaint), or perhaps for other reasons I wouldn’t know about, just simply never get the foreigner registered. And, in legal terms, the fault comes down to the employee; although this is sometimes possible to transfer to the boss, when one can prove it’s the boss’s fault, it can be difficult, especially when dealing with a Ministry of Justice Official who can’t speak more than rudimentary English. Such persons actually do find employment in offices primarily tasked with dealing with foreigners, as ridiculous as it sounds.

Meanwhile, there are droves of foreigners who are at fault in cases of qualifications fraud. Although I’ve never known anyone who’s come over on the basis of a fake diploma, one hears stories and rumors, and occasionally a fake professor gets caught and put on the news. This is illegal and I have zero sympathy for the idiots who do this and then think they can get away with it. They give the qualified, serious teachers in Korea a bad repuation, and frankly I’m glad to be rid of them.

Which is not to defend the way the Ministry of Justice handles them. If too many people are being detained in small rooms, well, I suppose that’s not very nice. But you know, in some countries the consequences would be much stricter. And besides, I think the description in the Globe article gives an impression that people are being put in holes in the ground. I’m fairly certain we’re talking about ventilated, relatively clean spaces. And I’m fairly certain the reason so many people are being put in holding rooms is because (a) crackdowns like these go hard and fast for a short time, (b) because it’s just not common for organizations of any kind in Korea to prepare ahead of time for situations like this, and (c) because, gee, there are so many damned people here illegally, or working illegally. And very close to everyone who does it knows it’s illegal; most people think they don’t face any risk, and depending on their region it might be true. But everyone, everyone knows it’s technically illegal. Saying one was “enticed” into doing it is a way of shifting the blame: anyone who is giving private lessons decided to do it, knowing it was illegal.

Surely in Canada, foreign workers who violate the agreement under which they are allowed to work and live in Canada would also be subject to legal consequences, up to and including deportation? Surely they would not be processed immediately?

But finally, on the subject of “illegal” private teaching, this is Korea’s big open secret. A majority of foreigners are teaching private lessons. The Ministry of Justice claims that this is illegal; however, according to a legal expert in Korea, who is known online as The EFL Law Guy, it’s not illegal at all according to some kind of international labour law treaty that Korea ratified. (Of course, like so much of the way the Ministry of Justice handles foreign labourers, this is a byzantine ad-hoc law that is not really legal or binding, but is de facto the law because, well, good luck getting around it.)

The even bigger secret is that a lot of the most effective teaching going on in Korea seems to be going on in private. Many dedicated, skilled teachers give private lessons, and their students tend to be very happy with the results. Even with an unskilled teacher, a lot of the distractions of the classroom setting and of an academic system being removed aid students’ learning, especially in the area of conversational use of English.

The reason that the private-cram-school system — which was illegal not so long ago just as private lessons are today — is more acceptable to the Ministry of Justice is because these institutions are almost exclusively run by Koreans, due to prohibitive ownership laws (one must have lived in Korea for something like ten years before one can be the sole proprietor of a business). No matter how unscrupulous these “hakwon” owners are for being crooked or unscrupulous, the Korean government (and I suspect Korean society in general) prefers any foreign population in Korea being under their control than acting as free agents.

This is an ironic tragedy, I suspect, because if private lessons were to be legalized for foreigners, a market would emerge, in which skilled or outstanding teachers would be sought after but also required to charge competitive rates; meanwhile, Korea would be honoring its international agreements, and very likely the acquisition of English would nationwide improve. Meanwhile, universities would also have a surplus of foreigners from whom to choose for their faculties, and would be able to impose demands for better qualifications, instead of just accepting anyone with an MA or a BA and a little experience.

Maybe the main issue is tax. After all, private lessons constitute an underground-economy industry, a kind of black market and therefore go untaxed. That may well be the main reason it’s illegal; taxation issues. If thousands of foreigners living in Canada did under the table work for $30-50 an hour and never paid a cent of tax on it, I imagine the Canadian government would rapidly be having a crackdown too. The difference is, the Canadian government would probably just demand tax on lessons and deport you if you defrauded on your taxes. I don’t know, though, what the legal issues are for freelance work by foreigners in Canada. Then again, I know we generally don’t need non-immigrant foreigners on the scale that Korea seems to need for its English-education industry/obsession.

Another thing I want to point out is that the Korean legal system is extremely fond of crackdowns. When the sex trade crackdown happened last year — or was it earlier this year — it was pursued with such fervor that the national economy suffered, to the tune of one percent of the GDP, or was is GNP? I can’t remember. Crackdowns on bad drivers have also happened. Most such things last only a while, and then they evaporate, and things go back to how they were, or as close as possible.

Finally: there was a time last year when peoples’ attitudes towards white foreigners became noticeably more negative, or at least circumspect; but then Korea got a big hate-fest going for Japan over the territory dispute regarding Dokdo (called Takeshima by Japan), and things cooled off. I don’t find people outwardly negative toward me, and most of the (small amount of) racism I’ve encountered in the classroom has been focused on macho statements of hatred for (or, in more critical minded students, anger at) Japan. But living in a foreign country is not easy, and living in one where such little English is properly and comprehensibly spoken, and where people are so insular and race-minded, and so on, that can be quite difficult. Add to that any bad experience and one sees every pair of eyes as if they were looking with anger: I know from experience. This is the perception of people who’re under arrest for breaking the (de facto) labour law, so of course they’ll have bad things to say; even foreigners who really love Korea (or their lives in Korea) often have a lot of bad things to say, on a bad day.

Anyway, that’s my two cents on this whole “crackdown on Canadians in Korea” thing.

UPDATE: And what I said about risks and decision making? It goes double for the use of fake diplomas. To people who do that, I laugh in their faces. I worked damn hard for my BA and MA. I went hungry sometimes and I studied like a madman. It may not be much but I earned this education. That someone would have the gall to go buy a diploma, and that they could get away with it, pisses me off. I only wish that the Korean Ministry of Justice would start checking on diplomas from the get-go. It’d be a lot more effective.

UPDATE 2: Sheldon at The Marmot’s Hole got a post up on the subject before I did, of course: it’s brief but followed by a fair amount of discussion.

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