In 1995, at the crest of a wave of private language institutes sweeping the country, the Korean Ministry of Education launched a pilot program called KORETTA, or Korea English Teacher Training Assistants, later renamed the English Program in Korea, or EPIK. [...] EPIK, however, was marked from the start by disorganization, miscommunication and allegations of corruption by its foreign teachers.A June 12, 1997 Korea Herald article delved into the "refusal of severance pay" aspect of that last sentence:
In 1996, a summer intake that consisted of several orientation sessions, run by Korea University, brought in more than 860 teachers, but by the third week of October, fewer than 500 remained [468, according to the Korea Times on Oct. 23]. Those who quit cited reasons such as inadequate housing, late salary payments and refusal of severance pay.
EPIK Contract Dispute Creates Dissent
This is the first of two articles about the English Program in Korea, a government organization of foreign teachers instructing English in the public school system. _ Ed.
____ By Mark Dake Staff reporter
Severance Pay. It's a term that English Program in Korea (EPIK) officials are likely wishing they'd never heard of and one that has resulted in a public relations nightmare.EPIK is an organization that was installed by the Korean Ministry of Education (MOE) in 1995, placing foreign teachers into the public school system to instruct English.
Approximately 600 teachers, mainly from America and Canada, but also from other English speaking countries, were hired last year. The first division employed in June, July and August 1996, signed 52-week contracts and should receive 30 days severance pay if they terminate their employment this summer.
But the EPIK suddenly did an about face during last summer's hiring process, creating new 50-week contracts. That two week difference was a huge factor. Severance pay, something the EPIK hadn't counted on doling out at all, could thus be avoided by reducing the employment term to less than 52-weeks, the minimum term required to work in Korea before being eligible for the benefit.
So, approximately 280 teachers hired last August and September who signed the 50-week contracts, are thus ineligible for the benefits.
All future EPIK contracts are now for 48-50 weeks, eliminating severance pay.
It was a move that caused resentment among teachers. Complaints have flooded into the Seoul MOE office, to teacher's respective national embassies, and to lawyer's offices and legal centers.
For example, one Canadian teacher signed a Sept. 2, 1996 to Aug. 17, 1997 contract, ineligible for severance pay, while an Australian teacher's contract from June 21, 1996 to June 21, 1997, allows him to collect the approximately 1.6 million won severance payment.
"I went to a Legal Aid center, and they told me I was entitled to the money," said the Canadian teacher, who for fear of retribution from EPIK, didn't want her name used. "What can I do now? I'll look for employment elsewhere." The U.S. Embassy has also been attempting to remedy the situation.
"We're well aware of the complaints from teachers regarding severance pay," said an Embassy official. "We met with the EPIK director last week, but he was vague when we asked the question about severance." A MOE employee who works closely with the EPIK, admitted the contract changes have caused problems. "It (severance pay) wasn't included in the budget," said the employee, not wanting to be named. "We're trying to make an effort to satisfy about 80 percent of the teachers. But we have to come with a lot more money. It's expensive." Severance pay, also known as retirement pay, (vacation pay in Canada), is mandatory for all workers in Korea, regardless of nationality, after working the minimum 52-weeks.
According to Article 34 in the "New Labor-related Laws" booklet published March 1997 by the Labor Ministry, "An average wage of more than 30 days shall be paid for each year of consecutive years employed... However, if the worker was employed for less than one year, this shall not apply." The monthly wage for EPIK teachers ranges from 1.2 to 2 million won, and an average severance package would be about 1.6 million won.
That figure, multiplied by 600 EPIK teachers, adds up to about 960 million won annually, or $1.1 million.
That sum is obviously one that the MOE doesn't want to part with.
The method they've undertaken to save the money, creating a 50-week work year, is legal.
"It's not illegal for employers to hire employees for less than one year," stated Kim Chong-yun, an official of the Labor Standards Division with the Labor Ministry. "It's the employer's decision." "Some employers are taking advantage of this provision to avoid paying the severance pay," said Kim. "They usually like to make a contract with employers for less than one-year." The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) oversees the EPIK in Seoul schools. An SMOE employee, who didn't want her name used, said that foreign teachers receive generous benefits while working with EPIK, and that severance pay was not necessary.
"In Seoul, we (SMOE) pay a 35 million won apartment key deposit, fully covered medical insurance, air fare, a settlement allowance of 250,000 won, good salaries and Korean holidays," she said. "And foreign teachers work far less than a 40-hour week. They don't work during mid-term and final exams." These exam periods in Korean public schools can last for weeks.
The SMOE employee said teachers can renew their contracts for up to three years, and that many teacher are satisfied with EPIK, citing a 65 percent renewal rate for this year.
One of the complaints from teachers regarding the severance issue though, was that both the SMOE and MOE offices have not been forthcoming about the contracts and severance pay, which they said has led to distrust.The old 'fire the teacher just before they finish their contract so you don't have to pay them severance pay' is a much spoken of hagwon trick; it's interesting to see that back in the day the public school system undertook to do that legally. One wonders when the change came that led to 12 month contracts in public schools.
"It's impossible to get straight answers, no matter how high up the chain of command you go," said Rod Rothwell, an Australian teaching in the EPIK in Seoul, after inquiring at the SMOE.
An employee with the EPIK Office at the Korea National University of Education in Chongwon, said that it is up to the 15 Korean regional MOE offices to decide individual cases.
The American Embassy listens to problems from U.S. workers in Korea, but it will not intervene on an individual basis. The embassy official said the severance issue probably seems unfair to individual teachers, and that it did create a bad image for the program. But she did issue a warning to instructors.
"Both parties have signed and agreed to a contract, and each party must live up to that contract," she advised. "You can't change contracts retroactively. You need to know what you're signing, before you sign." Teachers who do renew for a second year will receive some severance pay after the second year, but at this time, that amount is unknown.
Kim said that workers unhappy with a contract can negotiate with the employer to change it. But altering the EPIK contracts doesn't seem like a probable scenario.
It appears as if EPIK will save a substantial amount of money by eliminating severance pay for the hundreds of teachers annually who stay for just one year. One can only wait and see though, if the obvious fallout will have made the move worthwhile.
SMOE's purported "65 percent renewal rate" is interesting; I doubt that many renewed the next year, and the way in which the 1997 financial crisis derailed the EPIK program is made clear by this chart published by the Seoul Sinmun three years ago showing the number of native speaking teachers placed in public schools between 1995 and 2010:
(At top are the number of teachers by year, followed by a breakdown by nationality of teachers currently working, and at bottom are the percentages of teachers with qualifications.) As can be seen above, the number of teachers would not reach 1997 levels until 2004, seven years later.