Why I'm still in Korea

A lot can change in a year. When I left the US over a year ago, I intended to be gone a year. I had a contract for one year of employment. At the end of that year, I was guaranteed a severance payment, and a plane ticket home. I was on a quick trip abroad to save some money. At the end of that trip, I would be back home with some cool pictures, some new experiences, and some traveling money saved up. 

Five months into my adventure, things went haywire. 

This is the story of why I'm stuck in Korea. You may not call it being stuck, but I do. Read on, and perhaps, by the end, you'll agree.

The main road that ran in front of my old job, Avalon in Suwon-dong. The building is just off frame to the right. 

Allow me to explain. When I was hired, I got my job through a recruiter, as most first-timers do. She seemed nice, and was willing to answer many of my questions with what seemed to be full disclosure. At one point during negotiations, I was asked if I wanted to get a pension plan set up or not. The recruiter explained to me that it was an optional thing where you and your employer pay into a federal pension, which you collect at the end of your stay in Korea. In exchange for opting into this arrangement, I would take a monthly pay cut of about $100. So I opted out.

Less than a month into my stay here, my coworkers and I were sent to a mandatory foreign teachers' meeting. This consisted of a couple dry lectures about available resources and what to expect from employers. A small portion of one of the lectures touched on teachers' rights. One thing they mentioned is that the pension is not optional, and that I was supposed to get it without even asking, and that my employer and I were supposed to be paying in 9% of my monthly wages in matching contributions. 

You read that right: the pension is legally required, and requires matching contributions from both parties.

Well, I was told that I would be lied to. (This is one of the things other teachers will tell you before you come to Korea: you will be lied to.) Still, I didn't want to rock the boat so early into my employment, so I waited about a month or so before I brought it up to my employer. I also mentioned that I wasn't receiving my national health insurance, which was mentioned in my contract. Like an annoying fly, I was waved away, assured that the issue would be dealt with soon.

A month later, I was called into the boss's office to discuss my contract. Because my boss at the time didn't speak much English, I was accompanied by a co-teacher. The fact that everything I was saying was being poorly translated by a woman who shouldn't haven been teaching English in the first place may have contributed to the clusterfuck which is to follow.

I was informed that in order to get a pension, I would have to sign a new contract which would include the aforementioned $100 pay cut. My response was that I was pretty sure that I didn't have to have the pension in my contract to receive it, that it was within my rights, and oh, by the way, what about the health insurance that's in my contract?

Another month later, I was called back into the office, and a new contract was on the desk. I never agreed to sign a new contract, I simply wanted my pension, I told them. I was given the Korean version of "My way or the highway." I told them I would think about it, but upon reviewing the documents, I found that my paycheck would henceforth be doled out in separate checks. One of about $1,200, and the other of about $900. (This included the $100 deduction in pay, by the way.) From the former, my pension and national healthcare would be deducted. From the latter, nothing would be deducted. I was told the split was due to "tax reasons."

Remember back when I said that the pension was to be equal to 9% of my monthly wage, paid in matching quantities by both parties? Let's do some quick math (skip if you don't actually care about the details): Each party is supposed to pay in 4.5%, totalling the 9% required by law. From a $2,200 paycheck, this is equivalent to $198 total paid in monthly. From a $1,200 paycheck (remember, the $900 from the other check would not be factored in in the government's tallying) would have been $108 total paid in monthly. Divide by two, and you have each of our respective monthly payments. So, the reason a lot of hagwons (and I have found that this is becoming increasingly common as time goes on, but more on that in future post) do this "I'll pay you $100 less per month if you want pension" scam is to offset the cost of them having to match funds into the pension. Unfortunately, this combined with the "tax reasons" paycheck split, means that by having my boss pay into my pension under her terms, she actually would have been paying $45 less per month to employ me.

Okay, it got a bit technical and crazy up there, but long story short is that I was screwed. It was a scam-y business I had been hired by, and I was unfortunately brazen enough to question it, too intelligent to see through their funny mathematics when they offered a deal, and stupid enough to call them on it. 

A month later, after a few more heated meetings in which I attempted to explain that I understood exactly how they were trying to fuck me (or, more accurately, how they had succeeded in fucking me), I was informed that we could no longer work together. The official reason was that I was "breaking my contract" by asking for the pension which wasn't mentioned in the original contract. I insisted that they give me 30 days to find a new job (as required by the contract), to which they acquiesced. 

The entire month while I was looking for a job, my boss was harassing me about getting a different contract signed anyway. With about a week left in my 30 day grace period, everything coalesced in a shit-storm of thank-gods and fuck-yous.

I finally found a job on the other side of the country in a small city called Pohang. In order to get a new job as a foreigner, though, you have to get what's called a letter of release from your previous employer. This has to do with the fact that your visa is actually tied to your employer, and without an employer, you don't have a visa. Without a visa, you go home on your own dime. So, I found the job, and I went to my employer to ask for my letter of release.

She said no.

She brought out that same contract she had me look at a few months prior, and said I had to sign it, and it was going to be back-dated to the time I started working in Korea. She was going to pay into my pension, under the new "old" contract back to the time I had arrived. She was going to do this, but I had to sign this contract that said I never got paid $2,200 a month. 

She was making me sign away any proof I could take to the government that she had fucked me over. She was covering her ass so that I had no way to complain to the labor board. If I did, she would wave this back-dated contract saying I never got paid what I said. She would wave a piece of paper that made me a liar. 

She was covering her ass.

And if I didn't sign, I wouldn't get my letter of release. 

If I didn't sign, I would get deported.

I signed.


A lot can change in a year.

More on this next time.

By which I mean why the next job didn't work out either, and why I'm stuck until September.