Overseas ESL teaching is an increasingly attractive option for young North American workers facing bleak employment prospects and experiencing a more general phenomenon of downward social mobility. Working conditions vary widely by country and education system, and the temporary nature of much of the work poses particular challenges to potential union organizers. In this interview, ClassRoom spoke to KJ, a former IWW member who teaches English in Korea.
KJ: Before we start, I want to say that there should be a distinction made between foreign ESL workers and Korean ESL workers. The native speaking requirement (that foreign teachers must come from certain countries such as Canada, America and Britain) is blatant racism and discrimination and therefore workers are split into two groups with different working conditions and benefits.
ClassRoom: Right, that’s a great point. When we talk about overseas ESL teachers, we generally assume native English speakers from anglophone countries. But of course there are lots of English teachers from an assortment of backgrounds, and it also makes sense that employers would try to exploit these differences to their benefit. How did you originally find your job?
KJ: I had a summer job teaching English at a summer camp at my university. I really enjoyed teaching and my ex-girlfriend gave me a recommendation to a recruiter who placed me in a public school in Korea.
CR: What made you decided to travel to Korea and teach English?
KJ: I couldn’t find any work at home and I could either move west in Canada or go to Korea and do something that I know I enjoy. After moving here I found I really enjoyed it and decided that I would stay longer. I have a long-term relationship here and I’m basically a lifer while other people mostly stay a year or two.
CR: Do you have any sense as to why this has become a popular option for so many university educated Canadians?
KJ: There is no work at home and most jobs back home don’t allow me to use my knowledge of the English language and literature. However, I have noticed that a lot of people like Korea because of the easy jobs and the partying culture among foreign teachers. It’s quite popular to go to Korea for a year and party without consequences and then head back home. Maybe it’s my bad experiences with this group of teachers but I can’t see these people wanting to organize a union or show solidarity.
CR: What are your wages like? Benefits? Working conditions in general?
KJ: At my current job I have a rent free two bedroom dormitory room, free meals three times a day and overtime pay. I work at a public school that receives special funding though, and private schools are quite different. Also, I have no teaching degree and only a Bachelor’s and a CELTA (Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) while my Korean co-workers have PhD’s and masters degrees.
The biggest problem with working conditions seems to be dealing with co-workers. Often there are conflicts between Korean and foreign workers over cultural differences. At schools with multiple foreign teachers there are often conflicts between foreign teachers over petty things. Alcohol is often forced onto other teachers during company dinners and I have had to deal with unwanted advances from drunken teachers. Housing is another big issue that I’ve heard people talk about since your apartment can be impossible to sleep in, the owner can intrude into your space or it can be unhealthy and unsanitary.
CR: In your opinion are most ESL instructors in your workplace satisfied with their working conditions?
KJ: First, there needs to be a differentiation between private and public schools. Public schools are quite generous with good working conditions while private schools frequently steal wages. My boyfriend worked in an English academy and had to take the academy to court after they refused to pay his wages. This is a common issue that almost all private academy workers have experienced. Academies frequently close and then open as a new academy and teachers are frequently fired for no reason to avoid paying wages.
Lots of foreign ESL workers like to complain but I think there has to be a distinction made between complaining just to complain and having a grievance. I’ve listened to lots of complaints but they all seem to boil down to complaints about Korea and not about working conditions.
CR: What are the prospects of labour organizing among ESL workers.
KJ: In order to organize workers in Korea, discriminatory hiring practices need to be addressed. Teachers are placed into two categories by place of birth: native and non-native. Native speakers are paid much more and get better benefits simply because of where they were born which happens to divide teachers by race. This is the issue that needs to be addressed before any organization of ESL workers can happen. In order to make a union that organizes the entire shop floor, racist distinctions need to be erased.
The transient nature of foreign ESL workers is a problem since most people only stay a year or two before leaving. However, Korean ESL workers speak English and would be able to cooperate with foreign ESL workers. My belief is that demanding the erasure of the native speaking requirement would be a good way to unify foreign and Korean ESL workers.
I think industrial unionism is the only way to organize ESL workers because of the transient nature of the workforce and the high turnover. Traditional unionism wouldn’t work since each workplace has either a few ESL teachers or has a high turnover of ESL teachers. If you set up collective bargaining then the academy would just shut down or most of your members would leave anyway. Since wage theft is so common, an industrial union that could help teachers take their boss to court or confront them about stolen wages could be very effective. Organizing the worker rather than the workplace is the only feasible way I could see organizing ESL teachers.
CR: How would you characterize the labour movement in Korea?
KJ: The labour movement in Korea is very militant and vocal but it is inextricably tied up with nationalist politics. There is a popular leftwing protest culture but it is tied up with Korea’s history of colonization under Japan and the American backed dictatorships. The American beef protests are a good example of how these movements are made up along nationalistic lines.
[Check out this blog post for a brief analysis of protest culture in Korea – CR]
CR: Are there any factors, such as language, that would pose barriers in forming connections between ESL workers and the local labour movement?
KJ: Korean nationalism can be incredibly insular and there is an undercurrent of racial politics. Furthermore, the issue of Korea’s relationship with Japan underlies these large movements which makes it uncomfortable to participate in the Korean labour movement. Lots of Koreans speak English and I think it wouldn’t be too hard to coordinate, but I don’t want to support nationalism.
CR: Why is ESL education in such high demand in Korea?
KJ: The Korean SAT (수능) has an English section. Every moment in the Korean education system leads up to the 수능 test and students will actually demand that you return to teaching 수능 if you stray from the textbook. 수능 determines pretty much everything in students’ lives because which university they get into is so important for their lives.
There is a belief that native speakers of English are superior teachers of the language when this has no basis in reality. A large majority of foreign ESL workers are under-qualified with no knowledge of the English language or how to teach. Additionally, foreign ESL teachers are desirable because an accent that sounds American, British or Canadian is seen as desirable and superior to other English accents.
CR: What are the aspirations of your students?
KJ: To do well in the 수능 test and to get into a good university. I should clarify that this is the wishes of their parents as parents put so much pressure onto students to do well that they openly joke about killing themselves. I have had multiple students break down crying and have a nervous breakdown because they got 49/50 rather than 50/50 on an essay.
CR: Do feel that your work has any connection to broader histories of colonialism?
KJ: Yeah for sure. English is the language of colonization and it became a global language because of that. The industry has as much connection to colonialism as everything in Canada that’s on stolen land does. I would say that the native speaking requirement is rooted in racist ideology and I wouldn’t be surprised if that has roots in colonialism.
KJ lives in Korea, where he has worked as an ESL teacher for two years. He was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World in Canada before moving overseas.