‘It Was Too Good To Be True’
The Story of a Belarusian Circus Couple
On a cloudy afternoon on August, Andrey Ramanenka, 29, and Katsiaryna Balabolava, 27, were out at the seashore in the coastal city of Yeosu to practice their circus tricks.
The Belarusian couple who go by the name Duo Candy energetically showed off an energetic array of skills including juggling, acrobatics and unicycling.
Circus performers Andrew and Kate
The duo was employed on the three-level cruise ship which carries hundreds of passengers along the coast, passing the city's major tourist spots such as Dolsan Bridge, Odong Island and Expo Ocean Park.
However, after arguing with their boss over a slew of issues that they hadn't seen coming at all, they were forced to quit a couple of weeks ago, putting their lives in a state of limbo in a foreign country.
We're not sure when we will be able to perform again.
Balabolava said as she watched her boyfriend ride a unicycle.
In November 2021, a Russian man who claimed to be working for a Korean recruitment agency reached out to Ramanenka via social media with a job offer to work on a cruise ship in Yeosu.
Ramanenka didn't hesitate long before saying yes, because his previous experiences working at Lotte World in Seoul and Paradise City in Incheon were both good.
The couple was then introduced to Mr. Park, the head of
the agency who offered to sign an employment contract
that offered reasonable pay and good accommodation.
Under the contract, they would be working six days a week for less than 90 minutes per day, which guaranteed each of them a monthly payment of $1,900. The agency's contract also promised to provide the pair with a furnished apartment and meal expenses of up to 150,000 won ($110) per month.
They would be staying on an E-6-2 culture and entertainment visa, which is issued to foreign artists and performers.
We saw the employment agreement and thought that it looked good. There would be furniture and air conditioning in the apartment. There are only three shows a day on the ship. And what we liked about it is that we were free to show our own performances.
Nevertheless, a few days later, the agency required Ramanenka and Balabolava to sign another version of the contract, which stated that they would actually receive a monthly salary of just $900, not $1,900.
When they arrived at their new home in Yeosu on April 5, the couple realized something was off.
Instead of a furnished apartment, they were provided with a musty old apartment with no air conditioning, television or internet, all of which were supposed to be provided according to the contract.
We were surprised when we first saw our apartment. There were a lot of cockroaches. It was really dirty…There was no furniture, no bed, which was very strange and frustrating," Balabolava said. "And the toilet didn't flush. I cried all day.
Yet the dismal living conditions soon became the least of their worries as they began to work on the cruise ship after finishing their seven-day self-quarantine.
They performed for around 25 minutes per session which added up to roughly 90 minutes a day. When they were not performing, they had to stay on the cruise ship all day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., either waiting in the makeup room or cleaning up the dance floor.
We had to clean the dance floor, where drunk people partied and threw garbage everywhere. This wasn't mentioned in the contract.
What was worse for Balabolava was the "disco time."
During ‘disco,’ she had to dance with the audience for about 20 minutes after the circus show, which often involved physical contact with drunk people.
When I told my boss about this, he said, 'This is the system here and it's the way you earn extra money.'
The two also found out that there would be no holidays, as opposed to the employment contract which guaranteed them one day off every week.
After working 23 days straight in April, Ramanenka and Balabolava were each paid 306,480 won ($240) for that month.
Park explained to them that he had excluded 50 percent of the monthly salary, calling it a "deposit" which was also never mentioned in the contract.
As the rift between Park and the couple deepened due to repeated complaints by the artists, Park stopped paying them. "We worked all day without days off in June and 10 days in July but we still haven't received our salary," he said.
At the end of June, they sat down to talk with Park and cruise managers, and asked why the agency was not abiding by the contract.
And they said if we don't like the conditions, we should leave because they can easily find other (foreign) performers.
The two ended up leaving the job in mid-July and sought help from a local migrant workers' support center.
After being kicked out of their apartment, they managed to rent a tiny studio apartment with the help of the civic group. They filed a case with the Ministry of Employment and Labor in order to receive their rightfully earned but delayed payments ― for June and July ― including the deposit fee, as well as compensation due to the agency's breach of the employment agreement.
They now face lengthy investigations by the labor authorities and legal disputes.
"Our plan for the future is to find a lawyer because the labor ministry said they can help only get our salary. But we want more than that. The contract says if one side doesn't follow the contract, he or she has to pay compensation," Ramanenka said.
We will work hard to find our rights by the law. We know that many artists, many people choose Korea and we don't want this to be repeated.
However, an immediate challenge for the Belarusians is getting a visa extension.
After their current visa expires at the end of September, the couple will have to leave the country. So they sought to change their visa to a temporary G-1 visa, which allows the holder a one-year stay for various reasons other than study or work.
"If we cannot change our visas, we won't be able to make money to buy tickets back to Belarus …. we really need to change our visas," Ramanenka said.
However, officials at the immigration office told the two that they are not eligible to apply for the visa. They were told to come back with the results of the ongoing investigation by the labor authorities, which could take weeks, if not months.
Recruitment agency denies allegations
The agency that hired the pair, for its part, refuted the claims, saying that much of it is false.
"I never fired them. Rather, I asked them to continue working until we could find new foreign performers," Park, the head of the agency, told The Korea Times over the phone, Aug. 23. He insisted that the two terminated the contract unilaterally, and thus he is not entitled to pay them any unemployment benefits or compensation.
Meanwhile, he admitted that he made them sign two sets of contracts and that the one with a $1,900 monthly salary was concluded only to secure the visa. The employment agreement submitted to the Korea Media Rating Board should guarantee foreign artists at least $1,500 per month, he said.
In response to The Korea Times' question regarding whether such an act is a common practice by companies inviting foreign performers, Park declined to comment citing confidentiality.
But he said, "It's not fair to pay them $1,900, considering that Korean performers barely earn 1 million won a month. They (Ramanenka and Bolobolova) come from a country where they normally earn about 300,000 won a month."
Attorney Lee Ji-eun of Liberty law firm, who has handled many cases involving human rights violations of foreign artists, viewed that Park may be held accountable for violating labor laws, including the processing of dual contracts, which is clearly illegal.
"The initial agreement (promising $1,900 per month) submitted to the Korea Media Rating Board is the legally binding contract," Lee said. "And the one they signed later, which the employees were apparently 'forced' to sign, is void. Even though there was no physical coercion, the fact that they had no choice but to sign the second contract, in order to get the visa or to stay in Korea, should be taken into account."
The lawyer also observed that taking away the "deposit" fee without the consent of the employees could be seen as embezzlement or extortion.
She explained that illegal or unethical practices by agencies denying fair pay and equal treatment to foreigners are prevalent in the industry, not only because of a lack of monitoring and punishment, but also due to the absence of a platform through which they can easily seek legal assistance.
When will Duo Candy return to stage?
Although life in Korea didn't turn out quite the way they had imagined, Ramanenka and Balabolava still hope they can return to the stage soon. After all, it's their agency that deceived them, not Korea, they say, which makes them believe that there are many good people in Korea who would be willing to help them.
"I believe that every country has good people and bad people. But it's not normal to work in these conditions because I've worked elsewhere, but nowhere was like this," Ramanenka said.
We want to return to Belarus with a better impression (of Korea), along with our money, of course. Actually, we're quite embarrassed to explain our situation to our friends and families… But we hope that not all (Korean) people are like this.