|Kyonggi Elementary School in Seoul allegedly skimmed the wages of its foreign teachers. / Korea Times file
By Lee Han-soo, Park Si-soo
Kyonggi Elementary School has been accused of skimming the wages of eight foreign teachers over several years with a contract clause that turned out to be illegal.
The wages that were taken from the native English teachers amounted to 45 million won ($40,240), with some losing more than 10 million won, according to labor attorney Jung Bong-soo, who represents the victims. They filed a collective complaint with the Seoul Regional Ministry of Employment and Labor in March, demanding reimbursement of their losses and replacing current contracts with "fair" ones.
The skimmed income ― 10 percent of their hourly wage ― was transferred to an independent Korean recruiter, who searched for and hired native English teachers on behalf of the private school in Seodaemun, northwestern Seoul.
The recruiter, surnamed Joo, is known to have introduced himself as a school adviser and is said to have drafted the contracts, including the controversial clause. The victims said they had signed their contracts not knowing the clause enforcing the monthly deduction was illegal. Under Korean employment law, giving recruiters a portion of a person's first salary as an "introduction fee" is legal, but recruiters are not allowed to make regular deductions.
"He informed me that I had to sign the clause to become an employee of the school," one of the plaintiffs told The Korea Times. He wanted to remain anonymous. "I didn't know the clause was illegal." The teacher learned about the illegality in March and stopped sending money to Joo.
Another victim said the recruiter called the illegal clause "just a little unusual method" in the Korean education system, forcing her to transfer monthly 10 percent of her wage, otherwise her contract would not be extended.
School officials said they were unaware of the illegal deductions.
"We recently found that the illegal clause was written in the contract form," the school's vice principal said. "Joo is not our employee. So we didn't know what had happened."
But none of the victims took the explanation at face value. They suspect cozy ties between the recruiter and school authorities.
"If the school was paying him (Joo) a wage too, then maybe they could claim they didn't know," a teacher said. "But if they didn't (pay) him, then what did they think was going on? That he was just volunteering for 20 years? That seems unlikely."
The victims believe the school was aware of the illegal clause but overlooked it because Joo worked free of charge.
According to one teacher, Joo had weekly meetings with the foreign teaching staff every Monday and arranged their classes and other assignments. He also allegedly arranged and chaperoned an annual school trip to the U.S.
The Korea Times was unable to secure Joo's contact information.
The teachers' employment contracts are set to expire at the end of July. They hope the scandal won't affect contract renewals.
"I'm obviously being cautious since I'm a foreigner with an E-2 (English teaching) visa and need to be concerned about any backlash," a teacher said. "I don't want the case to ruin any future chance of me working anywhere in Korea."
The vice principal said the school will compensate the teachers if the labor office rules in their favor. He said the school would stop working with Joo and would search and recruit native English teachers itself.