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Everything You Need to Know About Ulsan

How to Protect Yourself Against Shady Hogwans

If you have lived in Korea long enough then you must know what a “hogwan” is. They are businesses passing themselves off as schools or “academies” to milk every last chon-won out of parents who are trying to get their children a head start on their careers. If you have heard of these places then you no doubt have heard about a lot of the shady underhanded ways in which they tend to screw over foreign ESL teachers who come to Korea seeking fair employment. In the 20 years that I have been here the shady hogwan playbook hasn’t changed too much and neither have the wages.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some okay academies out there… I have heard rumours of some actually offer breaks. However, the bulk of the ones around the country are nothing more than slimy snake oil salesmen who would step over their own dying grandmother if they saw a chance to make more money.  Many of them would think nothing of throwing a foreign English teacher under the bus and firing them to save money.

Research

So how can you protect yourself from these places and what do you do if you find yourself trapped in a difficult situation. The first thing to do is to not get yourself into trouble in the first place. This means do your research.

For the most part, both hogwans and recruiters work together to pull the wool over your eyes of the exact details of where you will be working, for how long, and what your real schedule will look like. They do this to keep you in the dark long enough to get you here and by that time it will be too late. You will have spent your money on a plane ticket, quit your job back home and moved out. You are stuck for the most part.

Recruiters are the worst at this because they want to keep you here for at least 3 months until they get paid. Then they don’t care and you will often never hear from them after you arrive. That “24/7 support” and all the “we care about our teachers!” is just to get you here and then they are gone like a fart in the wind.

The first step is to research. Our facebook group has a large amount of teachers in the group and chance are the current teacher is the group. Do not ask the school to put you in touch with the current teacher, make a post in the teachers groups asking to talk to anyone who works there. Contact them yourself because if you contact the teacher through the school they will probably be monitored when you are talking to them. This means that you are not getting anything near a truthful answer.

Next, check the hogwan blacklist groups and reddit pages. Find all the dirt that you can on these academies. The reason being is that if you see that people are constantly complaining about a certain school or chain of schools then you know to stay away. Even if there is only one post, you at least have some idea of the kind of games that they will play. Will they pay late? probably. Will they attempt to fire you in the 11 month? Possibly. The more you know, the more that you can plan for.

Don’t Accept The First Offer

The next bit of advice is that either the school itself or your recruiter will try and herd you into the first offer and/or contract that they give you. Never do this as they are no doubt trying to pull a fast one. Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate! Again, these are businesses. Their entire purpose is to make money for themselves. Ever wonder why they all tell you that they don’t have any more money or that there is no budget because of “korea’s difficult economic situation” and yet they wear designer clothes and drive an expensive luxury foreign car? That is all the info you need.

To push this point further, below is a job offer from 2004 (almost 20 years ago) that is actually better than what most places are offering now:

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Location(city): Ulsan city
Salary: 2.0million Won/mth
Working days: Monday to Friday
Schedule of hours:1:00pm to 8:00pm
Base a week : 120hrs/month
OT rate/hr: 17,000 Won
Sev Pay: Yes
Airfare Included: Yes
Accommodation: Single accommodation
Distance from school to apt: 10mins by bus

Age groups: Elementary to Middle school students
Class size: Approx.10
Health Insurance provided: 50%
The number of foreign teachers at school: 1
The number of Korean teachers at school: 4
Start date: on the 20th of November, 2004
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Now, take a look at a more recent job offer:

English teaching job available for native speaker at a well-known franchise hagwon in Ulsan.
Where: SongJeong, Bukgu (송정, 북구)
Hours: 14:00 – 22:00
Salary: 2.2 upward *depending on experience and interview
Benefits: Housing, severance check

You’ll teach an average of 8 classes a day but it could vary, and you get 2 breaks of 35mins every day plus **dinner is provided.

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*They will almost never pay you any more than this wage unless you look like a model and have a phd from harvard.
** This may seem like a perk but in most cases you will be eating with the students and probably even just getting the leftovers.

Use this as a comparison to any and all offers that you get. This was an average offer at the time. Not great but not too bad either. Back in 2004 they even paid for your roundtrip airfare as well. That means that the school paid for you to come and they paid for your flight home. You got raises and bonuses with these jobs back then as well. Often they would also pay for a flight to Fukuoka, Japan for your visa too.

Now, let’s think about this when you get an offer for 2.2 million won a month and they prefer you to already be in the country so that they don’t have to pay for your flight home. Think about this offer from 2004 when they try and tell you that their wage is “competitive” as well. There is no competition here.

Also don’t believe them when they try and blame it on the government and whatnot. There are limitations but nothing that says that they have to trim away all the benefits and try and pass off your legally owed severance pay as a “completion bonus” as well.

Get It in Writing!

So if you have managed to negotiate a decent contract and you have agreed to pay  to come over and work for them, congratulations! Now just make sure that you get everything in writing and double check the Korean as well. The crappier hogwans will sometimes change the conditions of the contract in the Korean version and then say “This is Korea, we only honour the Korean version… please understand our unique situation” and then you are screwed. Most will not go that far but do read over your contract before signing anything.

Also any special changes or agreements, it is best to get them in writing as well. Asking too many things often will only get you an annoyed response like “yeah yeah yeah ok ok sure sure!” and they have no intention of doing anything you have asked nor are they even listening. So get it in writing and take screenshots from any text messages that they have agreed to your offer in. They often will conveniently forget that they did that or said that and try and bluff their way out of that.

When Things Go Wrong

Chances are that you will have an ok time teaching in Ulsan. However, you may encounter situations where you want to get out of your contract and it may seem scary at the time. Couple of things to consider first. You are not legally bound to your school in any way shape or form. They do not own you. If you have to leave, then leave. They are a business and they know they deal.

If they are doing something illegal, then they are hoping and praying that you do not know your rights. They are hoping that you suck it up because they have the home field advantage. Truth be known, the government is slowly catching on and are coming down harder on schools who screw around.

You should first make a few anonymous posts on the LOFT Facebook group (click here) and in the Ulsan Online Facebook group (click here) asking for advice and help for your situation. Leave out anything that links it back to you or your school. These dirtbags hide behind the strict defamation laws that Korea has. So do not under any circumstances mention anything that can link your post to you or your school. Just try and get as much information as possible.

If things go really bad then you must file with MOEL and they will investigate the school. Often the owners do not think you can or will go through with this because they are hoping that by the time the dust settles you will have to leave the country. Do not waste any time on filing and if you have enough evidence then you can win your case.

So that means record everything! Take screenshots of everything they send you. Photocopy and photograph everything.  The more evidence that you have in your favour the better chance that you have to win your case. They will play dirty and you need to have all of your bases covered.

Typical Issues and Tactics

The 11 Month Firing – This one has been around since hogwans started. Due to the high costs of paying out the severance, flights, recruiters, and other assorted fees, scumbag hogwan owners typically have tried to cut their expenses by firing you in the 11 month so that they do not have to pay for your final pay, severance, flights, etc. The MOEL is onto this scam but unfortunately they do not deal with unfair dismissal. That is a job for the ministry of labour relations and they will dish out heavy fines if you can prove it.

Things to keep in mind are that they can let you go any anytime during your first 3 months. This is a probationary period and they do not need a reason to let you go. After that they need to provide proof that they have given written and verbal warnings and offered tire for you to correct your behavior or performance. Anything less than that, you stand a good chance of winning your case.

Often that will say something like “the parents have complained…” but struggle to show any proof of that. Typically, this means that they are lying and their BMW payment is coming up. They have to give ampel written and verbal notices before they can fire you.

The 90 Days Notice Scam – Some places will expect you to give 90 days or even 30 days notice if you are going to leave your contract early. The truth is that you do not need to give them any notice. After you get paid, you can leave without any issues. Despite what the school says, they cannot sue you for breaking your contract unless they can prove without a doubt that you damaged the school or did something illegal. The 90 days just gives them more time to fire you without warning or make your life hell for your remaining time at the school.

Giving notice is typically a professional courtesy given to your employer so that they have time to find your replacement. More often than not, hogwans use this time to torture and screw over the teacher that attempts to leave. This shows the kind of childish behavior that these so-called “directors” will stoop to just to get back at their employees.

Breach of Contract Penalty – The law is pretty cut and dried on this one and yet hogwan owners feel entitled to a cut of your pay should you decide to leave early. Article 20 of the Korean Labor Standards Act states that ” An employer shall not enter into any contract in which a penalty or indemnity for possible damages caused by the breach of a labor contract is predetermined.” This means that they cannot fine you or take anything from you as a penalty of you quit. Often they will try and recoup the recruiting fee of something like that but it is against the law. Also note, that they have 14 days from your last working day to pay you any and all money that is owed to you.

Final Advice

The first one there is a big one, DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING! Often when hogwans are trying to pull a fast one, they will get you to sign a piece of paper usually written in Korean that will be a complete lie or will change the agreed upon terms in your contract. Do not sign anything. Take a pic, use papago or google translate to know exactly what they are handing you and above all, do not sign anything!

If they try and force you out to save money by cutting your classes or something, just go in to work and sit at your desk. This works well when you have filed a claim with the MOEL and they are trying to get rid of you. By not showing up, they can fire you. That is what they want and if you go into work, even to just sit at your desk you can tell the MOEL that you came to school prepared to do your job and that does mean a lot in these cases.

Consult the Korean Labor Standards Act and get legal counselling. Should things go really bad, the hogwan is going to try and get as much money out of you as they can and after they are done, they are hoping that you are going to leave in a hurry once your visa expires. By showing them the actual laws that they are breaking and violating and filing claims with the MOEL, you are showing them that you are a backbone. You can consult the english version of the Korean Labor Standards Act here

Lastly, ignore the advice of people who say “take blacklists with a grain of salt” or “they are only written by disgruntled teachers who can’t handle a classroom” or something to that effect. The reason being is that posts on the legal sites and the blacklists are almost never written by fragile teachers but rather ones that have had to put of with abuse for a long time and are warning others to stay away from these schools of recruiters.

For the first time in a long time, teachers are becoming more and more aware of the crap that these places pull. For many years, they hid behind the defamation laws and made sure that the incoming teachers knew nothing about their dirty deeds. With the emergence of reddit forums and other groups, teachers can finally warm other teachers before it is too late.

Sadly, there are some foreign teachers who have become jaded and simply tell the teachers to ignore the warnings and come anyway. I have witnesses too many teacher get stuck in a crappy contract and have to pull a midnight run to get away from mentally deranged owners.

NAlso be wary of those kinds of foreigners too as some of them may turn out to be hogwan owners themselves. Some of the cheapest people that I know are foreigners who owner their own hogwans. Many of them lurk in groups and pretend to be teachers themselves but do nothing more than try to trick teachers into going to their school. The times when “foreign owned hogwan” meant that you were somewhat safe are long gone.


The final word that I will say on this is that not all hogwans or academies are bad. There are many throughout the city that are trustworthy and honest. However, it is up to you to find them. By doing a little research, you can ensure that you find a great school to work at and enjoy your time in Ulsan.

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