By Park Si-soo
A labor union comprised of native English teachers working for a language institute or "hagwon" has been established in Incheon, a legal expert on labor representing them said Tuesday.
This is the second teachers' union, said Jung Bong-soo. The first one was established in 2005 in Gangam, southern Seoul, according to the Ministry of Labor.
Jung said five native English teachers at a private language institute in Incheon were given approval to establish the union by a ward office on Nov. 24.
The union, headed by Evan Lloyd from the United States, has nine members, he said. Native English teachers belonging to the institute are eligible to join, he added. The union head was unable to be immediately reached for comment.
A pattern of "unlawful" behavior by the employer - unpaid overtime and threats of dismissal - drove them to unionize, Jung said.
The five founding members decided to set up the union after the employer forced them to work 40 hours per week rather than 30 hours stipulated in their contract.
"Under the contract, the employer is supposed to pay an overtime rate of 15,000 won per hour. But the employer paid nothing," Jung told The Korea Times in a phone interview. "In response to complaints about the unpaid overtime, the employer even verbally threatened to fire one of the five, who was a woman."
They visited Jung's office, KangNam Labor Law Firm, in southern Seoul in early September for consultations, leading to an investigation by a state labor inspector.
"The inspector acknowledged the teachers were forced to work additional hours without proper compensation and ordered the employer to pay," he said.
That ruling, however, was not good enough for them because their relations with the employer turned sour with one of the five being laid off. The dismissed teacher plans to file a petition with the Ministry of Labor for her reinstatement.
"The other teachers involved in the dispute also fear similar retaliatory action," Jung noted.
The expert refused to identify the language institute in question to protect the unionized teachers from further retaliation.
Yoo Mi-young, the labor inspector in charge of the case, said: "The number of petitions of this kind brought up by native English teachers here is on the increase."
Ahn Kyu-seok, a spokesman for the Korea Immigration Service, said: "Their activities aimed at protecting and boosting their right as legitimate employees will be guaranteed by law, but any activities with political purposes will be prohibited as stipulated in the Immigration Law."
A total of 22,905 foreign nationals are here on E-2 English teaching visas as of Oct. 31 this year, according to the Ministry of Justice. Of them, 134 overstayed their visa, the ministry said.