Teaching in Korea – Understanding Your Contract

For first timers and experienced teachers alike, understanding a contract offered by a Korean educational institute can be… well… intimidating or outright confusing. There are ‘red flags’ you should run from and ‘yellow flags’ where you proceed with caution but could be nothing. Keep in mind that many of these things are subjective and my advice is based on what I personally believe is and isn’t a big deal, and keeping both the employee and employer point of view in mind. In making this guide, I cross referenced about a dozen contracts posted on Reddit’s Korea Teaching sub, a couple posted on Dave’s and Waygook, EPIK’s sample contract, and a bunch of contracts I have been offered over the years and just saved. Here is also the official Korean Labor Standards for reference.

Note – PLEASE note anything I missed in the comments. I will try to keep this page as updated as possible.

Note 2 – This is not a guide on how to become an English teacher in Korea. That guide is found here.

1) Working hours

This should NOT be vague under any circumstances. The contract should clearly define when they expect you to arrive and when they expect you to go home. This does NOT equal “teaching hours” and should be inclusive of preparation time. Ask for this to be in writing. A typical public or private school schedule can be 8am-4pm and a normal hagwon schedule can be 2pm-10pm.

2) Teaching hours

A class can be broken up into periods of 40 minutes, 60 minutes, or 80 minutes. Some schools, like Gangnam public (operates outside of SMOE and EPIK) generously considers 1 teaching hour to be 40 minutes teaching and 20 minutes prep time. For the most part, it is exact time, so 2 hrs teaching is 3 classes of 40 minutes. On some shady occasions, they consider an 80 minute class as 1 hr. Rule of thumb, if you’re getting paid 2.0-2.4m won, don’t work more than 30 “teaching hours” period (25 is ideal). You can work more if you’re paid more. Also, keep in mind that more teaching hours requires more prep time and if there is no time to do that during work, you will end up either giving shitty lessons or doing more work at home.

  • Overtime – Some people make a big stink about what exact rate should be paid. Anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 is offered, but to me, it is not a big deal. The situations where you would go over your “teaching hours” quota stated above doesn’t come around that often, so it isn’t really a deal breaker. Getting a good contract is about picking your battles, and this one is not that important.
  • Saturday workDid you ever go to school on Saturday? Was a teacher there? The very occasional Saturday work is part of being a teacher and personally, I am okay with it as long as it is not a surprise, and limited in time (1-3 times a year). Some people blow their shit about this, but if you’re expecting it, it should be okay. Make sure you ask how many times total this is expected and get it in writing if possible.

3) Holidays

Most employers will have paid national holidays. This is a big deal since there are 15 of them in one year (unless they land on a weekend). If they don’t pay holidays, huge red flag, move on. It isn’t illegal, but that’s 3 weeks you have to work when most don’t. You’re not a sucker are you?

4) Vacation

Public, private schools (non-hagwon), and universities handle this a bit differently than hagwons.

  • Public – EPIK, GOE (Gyeongnam Office of Education), Busan Public, SMOE, and Gangnam Office of Education actually are a bit vague on this. For example, while the students are off for about 8 weeks a year (Seoul), it really comes down to your individual school how long you will actually be allowed to leave and how long you will have to “prepare for the next semester.” Some legitimately complain that their school forces them to simply sit-in for 5 weeks a year to “desk warm” and do nothing at all. This can be frustrating, but if you know what you’re getting into, bring something to do and you should be fine. Perfect time to work on grad school, a CELTA or some Korean language skills I guess.
  • Hagwons – Most will have 2 weeks, stated as “10 vacation days” outside of national holidays. My first job had 1 week in winter, 1 week in summer, and 1 week for Chuseok (Korean harvest holiday) off which included 3 national holidays. However, be weary of potential red flags. Anything less than 10 days is not illegal, but it sucks big time. Move on.
  • Green Flag – A super green flag is when you’re allowed to take time off at your own schedule. This is useful when you have specific times you want to travel somewhere, or want to avoid high seasons. With that said, educational institutes pretty much everywhere work on a schedule according to when students need a teacher, not the other way around, so it is not a deal breaker.

5) Salary

This should be obvious, but your salary should be explicit.

  • 3.3% tax rate – Some employers mention 3.3% as the tax rate. It is possible they are trying to list you as an independent contractor (IC), which is illegal. An IC is self-employed and sells their services independently, usually at a very high rate. If you’ve ever worked in the US and legally tutored, you probably filed a 1099 and its basically the same thing. You clearly are not this, and the reason this is done it to avoid paying taxes on you along with benefits provided by Korean law. Hagwons have been sued and lost but they keep doing it because they know many teachers aren’t willing to stick around for a long-winded legal battle. On the otherhand, I’ve also seen 3.3% listed along with all the other benefits of being a teacher simply because employers (and recruiters) don’t know the actual rate off hand. It can be an honest mistake so make sure you ask about everything else like pension and severance and ask if you will be listed as an IC or not. If you want to know how much you really should be paying, do the calculation yourself.

6) Flights

The status quo right now is to get paid for a one-way flight into Korea. If you get offered round trip, that’s awesome. If you get offered nothing, or a below market stipend for a one-way, that is less than awesome.

  • Flight from a “major city” – More and more contracts these days state they will only fly you from a “major city” which is vague and usually means they are being cheap. Flying from Chicago is cheaper than a smaller town in northern Illinois, which doesn’t help you at all if you live in that smaller town. This is more of a yellow flag but does speak to how cheap the school is willing to be.
  • Flight reimbursement – Make sure you know how and when you will be paid back for a flight if you paid it yourself as part of a reimbursement deal.

7) Deductions

Some contracts mention holding money the first few months and others mention garnishing your wages for certain reasons. The first one is a red flag and the other one is outright illegal.

  • For quitting – Any mention of wages garnished as a result of quitting violates article 43 of the labor code. However, in most cases, people are quitting to go back to their home countries, so it may not be in your best interest to have a drawn-out legal battle. It is your call, but I personally dislike any mention of garnished wages as it does not act in good faith and is a sign that people are often unhappy at this job.
  • For unpaid fees / utilities – One recent deduction I’ve seen is for potential unpaid bills. For the most part, apartments get completely cleaned out and accounts are settled the day you move out, so this really shouldn’t be an issue… if you’re a responsible adult. Unfortunately, too many adult-children work in Korea who sometimes do a ‘midnight run’ and leave Korea with outstanding bills to pay. This has essentially “forced the hand” of employers to add this ridiculous clause which harms the rest of us. I personally wouldn’t take any contract with this clause (I’ll explain why below) but your call.
  • Compensation for “damages” – You can’t take money from workers for labor they have already performed because they were shitty workers and damaged the school reputation. Hiring is always a risk to the employer and no, they can’t legally protect themselves. I asked the labor force myself and those were their words.
  • Final thoughts – Any sort of deduction, including delayed repayment of airfare, has another motive, it prevents you from quitting. No matter how much you hate a job, you won’t quit if they are holding 1-2 million of your salary. As an F visa holder (F2, F4, F5, or F6) who doesn’t need visa sponsorship (for context, nearly all first timers will be on an E-2 teaching visa), these really hold you down and quite frankly, a good business wouldn’t need to threaten with this at all. However, with that said, quitting outside of the extreme cases is a super shitty thing to do, especially if the employer is keeping up their end of the bargain and invested thousands of dollars to get you to Korea, apply for your visa, got you an apartment, and you have a job ready to go.

8) Sick days

Schools offer anywhere from 0-10 sick days. Bad hagwons offer 0, public can offer 10, and others can offer anywhere in between. The thing is that Koreans, in general, do not take sick days, so a Korean company might not see it as essential or feel they are playing favorites if they offer it to you but not the Korean staff. on the other hand, many jobs also understand that they need to cater to the standard people from abroad expect or they simply won’t come. It is a delicate process.

Three days seems to be the going standard at the hagwon level, but don’t take anything less. Especially if you’ve never been outside if your home country, new environments make you sick and that’s just the reality of things.

  • Doctor’s Note – There are two reasons why a doctor note might be required to take a sick day. An employer may have been burned in the past by someone who is “always sick.” I’ve personally worked with someone who took most Mondays off and well, that’s just unacceptable. Furthermore, this also comes from the culture where Koreans go to work unless they are dying, despite being very unproductive and probably infecting children and other staff. Nevertheless, I personally I find the need of a doctor’s note as a yellow flag, more of an annoyance, but not a deal breaker.
  • Deductions for sick days / Paid off sick days – If a job says you will be charged for sick days, well, those aren’t really sick days. If it says that it counts as part of vacation, this is tricky. I think its okay if you get more than 10 vacation days as it gives you ‘incentive’ not to be out unless you are really sick (that’s actually how some Korean companies work). However, at 10 vacation days, it is effectively less vacation because people do get sick from time to time. From their point of view though, every time you’re not in class, they will get complaints regardless and it is something they are trying to avoid.

9) Extra duties

Many contracts mention extra duties including special events (sometimes on weekends). I differ from most of my colleagues who generally feel this is bullshit. From my point of view, this is one of those things that just comes with being a teacher AS LONG AS YOU KNOW ABOUT IT BEFORE THE YEAR STARTS.

10) Pension

You should be offered national pension, equivalent to 4.5% of your paycheck. Your employer matches your 4.5% contribution to equal 9% total per month. Multiply that by 12 months and by the end of the year, you have around one extra month’s payment. Teachers from certain countries like Canada and the US can cash this out at the end of their stay in Korea. As far as I know, UK citizens can’t, which kinda sucks.

Super red flag if pension if not offered. This usually means they will not register you as a teacher and will have you as an independent contractor (IC). While it is not a ton of money, it does speak to the school’s handling of other legal aspects, which is a sign of worse to come. It is Korean law that this must be paid. Ask for it to be in the contract and if there is any resistance, move on. It is the law and they know it.

11) Severance

Like pension, severance is also Korean law. At the end of a year contract, you should be paid equivalent to 1 month’s salary. If they don’t mention this or refuse when you inquire, it is a super red flag and a deal breaker.

12) Medical insurance

All employees should be offered insurance under the National Health Insurance System (NHIS). You may be offered private insurance. As long as you have some kind of insurance, you should be good. You should pay this 50/50 with the employer and it should be explicit on the contract.

13) Accommodation

Korean law for hiring native English teachers requires that employers provide accommodation OR a stipend of at least 200,000 won a month.

In the past, many teachers came for a single year, and the Korean housing market asks for around 10 million won (about 9,000 usd) as a deposit (minimum), making the offering of the stipend uncommon as not that many came with 9k to tie up, nor do they have the Korean language ability to set this up. Times have changed. This is actually a bit tricky which can confuse even veteran teachers, so listen up!

For the most part, most teachers are still offered a studio apartment (Seoul) or something similar as part of the housing arrangement. However, this doesn’t usually cover bills, which are the worker’s responsibility. This is significant as Korean apartments often have a “maintenance fee” which can vary from 0 to 230,000 won a month for things like elevators, guards, parking, etc. If you’re a long timer here, you may realize like I did that you can get a way better place on your own if you have the deposit money and know what you’re doing.

For example, my previous studio’s market value was around 500,000 won a month (covered by the school) and the maintenance fee was around 150,000 a month which covered electricity. Add internet, gas, and water, that that was around 240,000 out of pocket for living expenses on my end. My current, two bedroom apartment is 650,000 a month, of which 500k is paid by my employer. However, there is no maintenance fee, but I do have to pay electricity, making my total out of pocket expenses around 250,000 for a way bigger place. It is a matter of putting some effort and doing the math.

  • Provided housing – Get pictures of the place you will live in and when you talk to a Native English Teacher (NET) currently working in this school, ask questions about the apartment. Be reasonable. These aren’t supposed to be pent houses. 95% of new teachers should just take the housing provided.
  • Stipend – If you are dead-set on getting your own place, be aware that it is very hard if you do not know how housing works in Korea. It requires a deposit from 10 million to 200 million won depending on a number of factors (plenty at the 10m range though), negotiation with a real estate agent, and decisive action. Write a message below if you’d like info on an English speaking agent I know. While 200,000 is the minimum per month they need to offer, many employers realize that even offering 400,000 or 500,000 is savings for them as they don’t need to worry about your housing or a deposit themselves. I’ve found this part to always be negotiable and from the 20 or so contracts that have been offered to me, even if it said 200,000 on the paper, they were willing to go higher.

14) Desk warming

A common complain is “desk warming.” I’m going to play devil’s advocate because I side with the employer on this one on some cases. What many call “desk warming” is actually preparation time and doing your god damn job. If you work in a place with tons of other teachers with zero experience or training in teaching and TEFL, it is easy to not know what to do with the time when you’re required to be in school but not actually teaching anything. This can be used for marking papers, planning the next week’s lessons and so on. However, when you’re done with this, there is a whole lot more you can do.

For starters, working on your Korean language skills would be super helpful. In fact, this is actually what licensed teachers do who teach TESL but don’t speak the student’s native language in places like Texas and California and it pays dividends big time. Another thing you can do is up your own TEFL game by reading about the latest strategies. This can be done formally by getting a TEFL, CELTA, or MA TESOL, or independently by doing some research and reading a couple of articles. Have a class that is just impossible? Chances are, you’re not alone and others have dealt with the same thing over the years. One resource I consistently find very valuable is Learner’s English by Swan and Smith, which outlines the mistakes students make based on their 1st language but I am super going off topic here, right? Any mention of having to be at work when no one else is, yellow flag.

15) Phone teaching

I’ve heard one teacher say, “It’s not so bad” and a million hating it. I personally have had to do this my first year and hated it because we had to stay late, and it is super awkward calling students at their home for 30 minutes. Just avoid any kind of “phone teaching.”

16) Getting fired / Quitting

Most clauses I have read about getting fired or quitting are illegal. However, enforcing such rules may be difficult and dealing with a long court battle is best avoided.

  • Warnings – You need to get three warnings and the job must show that they tried to help you fix the situation before getting fired. You should also be given at least a month warning or a month advanced pay before firing you. On one hand, if you’re a decent teacher, you shouldn’t be worried about this. On the other hand, it is probably better to avoid having such a clause if possible.
  • Notice for quitting – You do not have to give any notice when you quit. Many jobs say you should give 2 weeks, 1 month, or even 3 months notice before you quit. This is against Korean law as you’re not an indentured servant. If the job is just absolutely horrible with your apartment on fire, kids with knives and a physically abusive boss who often comes on to you, feel free to walk away. You absolutely must be paid up to the last day you worked and no you can’t be forced to pay back recruitment fees, damages, plane tickets, etc as it violates article 43 of the labor code. Now, with that said, quitting is a super shitty thing to do. I totally get why employers who are decent put these clauses in their contracts. They have been burned by people who have never worked a decent job and whine about everything. Don’t quit your job unless the boss is explicitly breaking the contract (and law) constantly and it is just unbearable. Regardless of the circumstances, you will likely not get a Letter of Release (required to get another job in Korea if you’re under contract) if you don’t finish your contract and your job prospects will be no better next year without a letter of recommendation.
  • Private lessons – Under E-2 visa issuance conditions, the visa is tied to the employer and it is their right to forbid you from working side jobs. There are tales of deportation here and there but nothing solid. You’re probably just gonna get in trouble, so cut it out young man! The mentality here is that if you’re working side jobs, you can’t focus on your main job, which is a legitimate concern.

17) Dress code

This seems to be a big deal among the foreigner community, but most jobs do not want you to look like a slob. When in Rome ladies and gentlemen, dress like you’re here to see the god damn emperor. This is a totally normal clause, stop being bummy.

18) Oddly specific situations

Does your contract have very oddly specific scenarios? Yes, they happened. This doesn’t mean the job is good or bad, but it should give you some insight as to why an employer would be on edge and what things upset them.

If this is something along the lines of, “Don’t have physical or sexual relationships with students,” that should be obvious and duh, don’t date students. If it says, “Do not talk about the labor laws with co-workers,” it probably means they are pretty damn shady and don’t want you to make a union against them. Read between the lines, yellow flag.

19) Less common situations

  • Split shifts – Split shifts are when it says you will work 8 hours a day “some time between 6am and 10pm.” These suck and could be 6am-10am and 6pm-10pm with zero stability. It is just draining, avoid.
  • Eating with the students – Some jobs require you to eat lunch with the students. I actually do this now and it doesn’t bother me too much. While it would be nice to be able to go off campus, get my own lunch, and have a little break, I knew what I was getting myself into beforehand and was okay with it at signing so I’m not going to complain about it now. Yellow flag depending on preference.

20) There will always be 1-2 things you don’t like

Just be aware, there will always be a thing or two which don’t sound ideal. That is completely okay. It is a job, not playtime and if you want a perfect contract, open your own school. Seriously though, the most important thing is to know how to pick your battles. Good relationships throughout the year lead to promotions, better positions, and better jobs down the line. For the most part, I would say loyalty and dedication are rewarding while constant complaining only serves to make you angry in the long run.

21) Certifications, experience, and connections matter

I just finished saying that there will always be some things you don’t like right? Well, your tolerance of shit clauses in contracts should be directly proportional to what you bring to the table, which many people seem to forget. Got a bachelors in education, a CELTA, a master’s and 10 years experience? Yeah, you’re looking for the cream of the crop and probably should keep looking until you find a deal without any iffy clauses. Oh, you’re a recent grad with an unrelated major, no experience, and have no idea what TEFL stands for? Yeah, you’re at the end of the line buddy, so don’t expect to get the same deal your friend who has been here a decade got. For the most part when deciding what is and isn’t a big deal above, I assumed a tad bit of experience, an maybe a TEFL certificate so adjust accordingly. If unsure, leave a comment below.

22) Closing advice

After every contract you receive, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS ask to get the email addresses of more than one NET if possible to ask questions from teacher to teacher. Email works best for a few reasons:

  • Stalling – Not sure this is the job for you and have other interviews coming up? Emailing stalls the process. You can always blame your indecisiveness on the fact that you haven’t been emailed back. Feel free to make it sound like you’re ready to close the deal but just need this one thing. It keeps THEM from taking back the offer. Korean business usually want a decision immediately and aren’t used to waiting, so most Korean’s aren’t really into this “I’ll get back to you in a week or two” stuff.
  • Knowledge – NETs working the following year don’t want to lie to you. Even if the boss tells them to say only positive things, they have to deal with you and your bitching all year long if they lie. Read between the lines if they seem hesitant to praise a certain part of the workplace. They may not be able to say negative things directly, but they sure won’t praise the crap out of a place they hate.

 

I hope this was helpful to you guys. If there is anything that you think I missed, put it in the comments below.

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Julio Moreno

Julio is a California native who has lived abroad since 2009 as an expat in South Korea and New Zealand. He is especially passionate about experiencing other cultures and visiting as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
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