A Friday fight for my letter of release

2 weeks ago I officially submitted my letter of resignation to CPIS for February 28th, 2014.  This week I was told my school owner called the school that offered me a job and accused them of poaching.  I responded by compiling a list of reasons I was leaving and submitted them with a note stating if I didn’t have the letter of release by Friday I would bring the grievances to the ministry of labor.  Today is that Friday.

I stopped by my principal’s office at 9:00 and she was nowhere to be found.  I asked the vice principal and she informed me “she isn’t in yet.”  I made a few copies and waited for her arrival.  When she hadn’t arrived by 9:10 I went upstairs again; I couldn’t waste my morning waiting around for her and I took this as a bad omen.  Our old principal would routinely arrive after the first few buses and I hoped this wasn’t the new trend.

I went back to my room to get a few things ready and went down to her office at 9:25 to find Mr. Bae and her conversing in the hallway.  He left as I walked up and we walked into her office together.  I asked her if Mr. Bae had written the letter of release.

She immediately began telling me “you know it is not good for you to leave like this.  If you want to teach in Korea.”

“Yes, but it is not good for me to stay here.  I need my letter of release today,” I replied.

“oh, have you, will you, pay the flight?” She asked.

“No, that is an absurd request.” I reiterated my statements from our previous conversation. “My contract says I don’t need to repay the flight after 6 months of employment. If I don’t have my letter I will contact the ministry of labor as I said earlier in the week.”

“You know I didn’t tell Mr. Bae yet.”

Wait, what?  Why would she go all week without even bringing it to his attention?!?  I was starting to lose my trust in this women and wanted to scream.  I wanted to tell her I would call the ministry right now if I don’t have the letter; oh the things I wanted to say.  I used the advice and patience I’ve learned through teaching, working with special ed and fencing for many years to say nothing and let her continue.

“It is bad idea for you to do that.  You know all owners know each other in Korea and it will make it very difficult for you.”

“I agree that all the owners know each other.  In the two interviews I’ve had they knew about (insert school name here) and the problems we are having here before even asking me for an interview.  I have had 2 job offers already and have more interviews scheduled.  I need the letter of release.”

“Okay, I see.  You really need to negotiate with the school.  You know the bad financials it is in.  You should repay half the flight.”

“No.  You need to give me the letter of release.  If that is the only way you will than before I can agree to pay anything I need my letter and a document stating the amount I will be paying and why.”

With that she left to finally speak to Mr. Bae.  I sat quietly staring at the clock. Tick… Tock…  Tick… Tock…  My students would be arriving in my classroom momentarily if they weren’t already bogging down my co-teacher.  She came back a few minutes later.

“Okay, you know this is bad idea for you but if you need the letter we can do that.  I spoke to the accountant and she is getting the amount of flight.  When do you need the letter by?  You need a document too?”

“Yes,” I replied, “I need a document stating the amount I would be repaying and I need the letter today.”

“Yes,” she said, “I will do that.  Are you okay?  You have money?”

“I am fine.  I have American money and have saved from my few Korean paychecks.  So I will have the letter of release today?”

“Yes.”

With that I told her my students had already arrived and excused myself from her office.  A coworker overheard the discussion in the hallway and came to the same eerie conclusion I had.  “Was that Mrs. Yi?”  She laughed a little, we both cringed and then agreed that the appearance of this new side of our principal was even more of a reason to get out.

I taught my Kindergarten classes and made my best to ignore my morning conversation.  It was unsettling but I left with a good feeling about the coveted letter of release.  I taught my students about Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and we played the dreidel game before doing our regular centers and working on fact families in math.

My after school group went swimmingly well as we talked about past tense and going places using plural and singular pronouns.  When they had a break for snack with Sae, a Korean teacher downstairs, I bumped into [the director] in the hallway.

“Do you still need the letter?  I spoke with [the owner].”  She asked, as if I might have changed my mind.

“Yes.”  I said matter of factly.

“Just stop by my office.”

“Okay, I am done teaching at 5.” I replied as she went back to guiding her tour of prospective parents.

My class finished uneventfully and I went down to her empty office.  I continued walking towards Mr. Bae’s office and noticed the two of them discussing something in Korean.   I waited a few moments before deciding to let them finish and get back to work in my room.  Around 5:10 my phone rang and [the director] asked me to come down to her office.

I walked in and yet again she asked me if I was sure I wanted the letter.  When I reaffirmed my stance she took out an envelope and stapled piece of paper.

“Is it okay if its Korean?” my principal asked.

“As long as it is the letter of release I can get it translated.” I replied.

She unfolded the letter and said the top line in Korean, explaining that it means letter of release.  The dates no it seemed in order and she pulled out the next sheet of paper, a billing receipt for my flight ticket to Korea for ₩856,259 (roughly $850).

“You are okay to pay half?” she asked

“I can, but I need a receipt.” I responded.

“I cannot do that today, this is embarrassing but when will you pay?” She asked me.

“We get paid on December 5th right?” I told her, knowing that was when we SHOULD be paid.  “When I get my paycheck if I have the receipt I can give [the owner] the money.”

“Maybe.” She responded.

Wait, maybe?  So I guess I should expect the next paycheck to be delayed too.  I guess “maybe” I’ll pay them for this release letter.  At least the fight for it is officially over!  I can accept the other position and with a week to spare there shouldn’t be any more issues.

My coteacher confirmed that it is in fact a letter of release.  I took a picture to send to my current dream job at Young Hoon Elementary school before making a few copies of the documents.  My next fight will be over whether or not the half flight repayment is in fact warranted but for now I’ll celebrate.  Even if I end up shelling out a few hundred bucks its worth it for a much better job that will make up that difference with one month’s pay and I won’t have to deal with all the garbage that this place throws at us!

Psuedo Strike Day 4

We continue teaching without pay so have we continued teaching at CPIS in a similar vein to last week with minimal instruction.  I hate the feeling that I could be doing more for these kids but even in my short stay here in Korea I’ve learned that I need to take care of myself first.

That was one of the first lessons I was taught here from a more experienced expat.  “Koreans aren’t going to look after you.  You need to always look out for your best interests or they will just take advantage of you.  It happens all the time to Americans, especially at hagwons.”  I took my friend Hoho’s advice my first week after I found out about the first series of late paychecks.

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Unpaid and unsure

Another day without answers.  The owner was scarcely seen at school today; some saw it as a sign that he was working to get the money, others read his absence in a much darker light.  I’m not sure what to think about him or the administration.  Part of why I came here was to teach the kids, but that was only part.  This is a job, not volunteer work and unfortunately I don’t need another volunteering bullet on my resume.

The foreign teachers were called into the principals office after school so she could read a letter from the owner.  Many did not trust that it was in fact his own words or that her translation of his Korean was accurate.  It seemed to be a heartfelt letter; the problem was that it was lacking a solution or reason.    We were asked to trust them and be patient, that he doesn’t want to close the school but, if we starting taking drastic actions he might change his mind.

With some carefully worded questions we were able to get the principal to tell us how the owner is planning to get the money.  He is in the process of selling “one of his buildings,” we just hope its not this one.  The fact that we know he has a Ferrari, a BMW and now multiple buildings but failed to come up with the money for 2 weeks is unsettling to say the least.  Unfortunately there was no time-frame on the building sale so again we pried a few answers from the administration.  What happens if he can’t sell or it takes too long?  What about the income the school is making on tuition?

Bingo, we don’t know where the tuition money has been going but we are getting skeptical.  It gets delivered to an accountant who then pays us from the owners account.  A few teachers crunched the numbers and it doesn’t add up.  Tuition should be more than enough to cover the employees salaries.  Accusations about the owner taking money from this school for a different investment came flying out only to be retold that this school “doesn’t make a profit.”  Not the words we wanted to hear.

The good news is that the next round of tuition will be held by the principal to pay us directly, if our owner is unable to come up with the funds himself.  The bad news is that tuition isn’t due until this Friday and next week is a national holiday, Chuseok.  It takes up to 5 business days for the turn around so we’d have to wait until September 24th.  Personally, I still doubt I’ll get my paycheck on the 24th as it isn’t owed to me until the 5th of next month but I will find out for sure tomorrow.

A number of my coworkers say that the 24th is too long.  3 weeks without pay and not knowing whether or not the next paycheck will follow suit is unacceptable, by any standard, let alone when living in a foreign country.

Nobody knows what will happen; no one wants the school to close but all of us foreigners know that we can’t afford to work for free and can easily find work elsewhere.  One of my coworkers even had an unsolicited offer today; he hasn’t decided what to do with it and doesn’t want to screw the rest of us over.  We are meeting again tomorrow morning to determine if we are even comfortable waiting.

One glimmer of solace is that the principal has repeatedly said that there is a $1 million dollar deposit on the school.  If it closes the money is returned and she will use that to pay all of our back pay; provided we keep working.  Many of us don’t trust her and think she is just telling another lie; maybe its because I’m the eager new guy but I believe her.

I found the hostel I’ll stay in if I need to and will be contacting other recruiters just in case but am keeping my fingers crossed that the owner can sort this out asap!  I even was able to get the administration to agree to a contract renegotiation after we are paid.

The kids are still adorable and I really enjoy working with them but I’d like it even better if I knew that I had a paycheck coming.

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