Re: 'modest proposal' on visas

Printer-friendly versionIt seems the ever-popular Brian in Jeollanam-do has been keeping up with my humble blog / Twitter feed. Not too long ago, I wrote a modest proposal for changing the restrictions on visas for foreign language teachers (that's an E-2 to anyone already here), and sent a copy to the Korea Times for their Opinion section. Some weeks later, Brian tweeted about it before I even realized it was up on the Korea Times, and had a few things to say:
I'm not a big fan of the restriction on E-2 visa holders, and think that visa portability, or even the less-drastic suggestions Chris made, would benefit the foreign teachers holding these visas and the industry as a whole by making it harder for shitty schools to keep foreigners locked into year-long contracts. According to quite a few teachers, the issue of visa portability should have been the first thing ATEK went after when they launched, rather than coming out swinging at drug tests and background checks.

But the question Chris'd have to ask next is: what reason is there for the system to accommodate E-2 visa holders? Or, more specifically: what reason is there for the system to accommodate English teachers on E-2 visas? Don't forget the E-2 visa is for foreign teachers of foreign languages, not simply English teachers. [emphasis mine]

Seeing as how English teachers make up neither the cream of the crop, the richest foreigners in Korea, or the ones with the best reputation, it's a fair question to ask - but definitely not an easy one to answer. That said, I'll give it a go.

Change often comes as a result of the status quo being less preferable than the proposed alternative. At the risk of sounding cynical, the status quo works for the people that matter the most; without enough forward-thinking people in high-enough places, there's little incentive to change what works. So what reason is there for the system to accommodate E-2 visa holders? I offer three:

Financial - any money being made, theoretically speaking, has an obligation to be taxed according to the laws of the country in question. Fair enough - but money made illegally isn't going to be taxed because no one's going to report it. Teaching privates 'off the books'? Sure, you may sure an extra million won a month - but to report it legitimately jeopardizes your visa status, your lifestyle, and the like. When you legalize or legitimize it, you also begin to remove the mindset that teaching privates is 'bad', 'illegal' or needs to be hidden in some way. Perhaps this is the same argument about legalizing marijuana in the U.S., and certainly there are some similarities between the two - an illegal thing that's done by the masses anyway.

-- WARNING - guesswork and assumptions at play --

Let's assume there are 20,000 E-2 visa holders (for what it's worth, Gusts of Popular Feeling says 21,498 were here in July 2009). Let's say 25% teach privates illegally - a guess, admittedly. At an average going rate of, say, 35,000 won an hour, and perhaps, say, three hours of private lessons a week, that's 105,000 won per week per teacher. Again, these are all guesstimates - but there are no official stats whatsoever to go on.

105,000 won per week x 4 weeks = 420,000 won per month per teacher.

420,000 won x 5,000 teachers illegally teaching privates = 210,000,000 won a month in untaxed income. Assuming a 16.5% flat tax rate imposed on expats according to, that's 34,650,000 won tax revenue a month, or 415,800,000 won tax revenue per year.

Bear in mind that's only E-2 visa holders, and only 'illegal' lessons - if legitimized there would almost surely be an increase. Simply put, there's more money to be made taxing a legitimate service than fining the few you catch doing something illegal.

Competition - gotta keep up with the other countries. Lo and behold, Japan has had a system where teachers can pick up and go without fear of losing their eligibility to legally stay in the country. It's a different system, to say the least, but it's one not tied to one school that provides a job, an apartment, and a legal status in a given country. If the better - dare I say 'qualified'? - teachers are going to Japan, guess who's coming to Korea? That's right - the people who meet the requirements and little more. Lucky you if you get a teacher who's certified or has a teacher certification - for better or worse, it's the exception rather than the rule. If you want the better teachers, you have to give them the appropriate incentives. Working in Japan - at least one website exists to legitimately match teachers to students for private lessons and extra cash. Working in Korea - it's illegal unless your employer gives you permission and you clear it with Immigration.

Long-term - do you want to be a country that's known for bringing in foreign employees for the 'three D's', or for finding the best people to do the best job possible? Allowing foreigners in on a limited visa, to do a limited job, with few legitimate potentials for growth, doesn't exactly give one the mindset that Korea's open to you. Whether that affects FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), a general mindset about the country, or future dealings with the country, I couldn't tell you. It does reflect a certain closed-mindedness on the subject, however. Reforming visas begins the process of changing your country's image - if you're able to do a job well, your success is limited only by your imagination and willingness to work.

There are three forces working against any sort of change in this field, however:

Uncohesiveness / apathy / turnover - English teachers in Korea have yet to show any sort of large-scale cohesion. Even the most popular blog, website, or magazine doesn't reach everyone. There's also a Catch-22 at work: the change you can make without stepping on anyone's toes is infinitesimal; get to the point where you have a voice that might threaten the status quo, and you'll find yourself cowed, shamed, and threatened until you submit and lead a quieter life. We'll all look for a better deal, of course - then settle with what we think is the best we can find, or we'll leave Korea. That brings in another (usually) inexperienced foreigner, and the process has to start all over again.

Power - and who has it. Because of the first element, it's clearly not with the foreign English teachers. I can't speak factually on the existence of a hagwon association, a 'teacher' blacklist, or other forms of collusion, so I'll stay quiet about that. If you have a bad experience at hagwon A, however, you can expect their reference to be heard much more loudly than your version, whether you're speaking with a future hagwon, Immigration, or the like.

Government / law - between the smoke and mirrors of 'say one thing and do another', the bad websites, and the lack of effective advocacy for a minority group, there's very little the government does or can do to protect foreigners. It's only when we've taken matters in our own hands and shamed someone into changing that things have happened (see Bonojit Hussain from November 2009, the gentleman who took Mr. Park to task for racial slurs). Even then, there's no guarantee of effectiveness. It doesn't help that an overwhelming number of foreigners have no right to protest / take part in political activities, or vote; taking a business / school to court is quite difficult as well, requiring more money to fight in court than one might stand to make in compensation.

Short of a massive uprising or an earthquake-sized fault in the status quo, there's nothing that can be done to force a change. I don't intend to try and force anything - how many hundreds of thousands of Koreans protested for months in downtown Seoul over American beef and the Korean government? Instead, I propose a change; get the dialogue flowing to see what can be done. There's no guarantee it'll go anywhere, but then again, what guarantees do you really have in this life? Whether it's legal or not, private lessons will still be taught - and some people will continue to have an edge because they went outside the bounds of law.

Creative Commons License © Chris Backe - 2010

This post was originally published on my blog, Chris in South Korea. If you are reading this on another website and there is no linkback or credit given, you are reading an UNAUTHORIZED FEED.



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