First, I want to give a brief picture of migrant labor in Korea. The term “migrant labor” evokes images of rough plantation workers slaving in the sun for 12 hour days, earning wages well below minimum. Hundreds of thousands of workers come to Korea who fit this hyper-exploited mold. Many southeast Asians relocate to Korea for low-paying, dangerous, undesirable jobs in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture. The Korean government even gives E6 visas to women forced into prostitution. Crackdowns against illegal and undocumented workers help keep this mistreated and deceived workforce in line. Those attempting to flee are detained and punished, often kept in appalling detention centers.
In Gimpo, a suburb of Seoul in which I lived for a year, I often encountered groups of Sri Lankan construction workers. I assumed they were building a massive apartment complex that was developing down the road. It was plain they received little money and faced incredible racism. I once saw a pair of them verbally abused on a crowded bus. Another time, I met a pair of them in a pension office where they were denied their refund because their boss (illegally) failed to report their income.
The well-compensated and respected native speaking English teachers in South Korea do not face quite the same hostility. The degraded term “migrant labor”, though technically accurate, seems strangely inapplicable. My experience was not comparable to the racism and exploitation faced by the menial laborers from South Asia. English teachers are a relatively privileged sector of the Korean economy, often given much higher pay than our Korean counterparts in the industry. Since my pay came out to roughly 9 dollars an hour, I was shocked to learn that the Korean teachers at my academies get paid about half the salary of foreigners, even though they have dedicated their whole lives to studying English and are well educated. This drastic disparity often served to maintain an uncomfortable gap between the native speakers and Korean English teachers.
Overall, I had a good experience in Korea and I’m glad I went. But the fact is I was underpaid and overworked. Parents dole out big bucks for their kids to attend private academies such as the one I taught at. Korean families spend roughly 25% of their income on their children’s educations. The tuition for one kid is roughly equivalent to one teacher’s salary. There Hundreds of kids attend the academy, and there are only about 12 teachers. So, somebody is making mucho won ($) off our butts. And we work hard, with 8-9 hour days and no significant breaks. I usually had 5-6 hour stretches in my day with no breaks to eat and barely enough time to go to the restroom.
On top of that, the job is quite precarious. A year-long contract is the norm. During this time they can fire you for the most contrived reasons. I knew multiple people who were let go simply because the school didn’t like them. They were given paltry official reasons for their dismissals, such as forgetting to write homework on the board or not grading tests on time: minor mistakes that everyone makes during their first few months. Long time teachers in Korea have to go through the same job searches every year, never finding stability.
While the English teachers and the Asian construction workers are at opposite ends of the stratified ladder of migrant labor, they are part of the same phenomenon of international capital. As the Korean economy boomed in the late 1980s, demand for cheap, menial labor and English education simultaneously skyrocketed. As Korean companies looked to expand operations with exploitable workers to lower costs, Koreans sought English language skills to achieve success in the global marketplace. Essentially, the Sri Lankans and I were in Korea for the same reason: to meet the needs of globalized and expanding Korean capital.
Therefore, English teachers in Korea need to realize all migrant workers are in this together. Also, native English speakers will not be at the top of the migrant labor pile forever. Increasingly, the well-paid native speakers will be pitted against cheaper English teachers from abroad, mostly from the Philippines. Many Filipinos are well qualified English instructors, paid much less than the standard contract as they are not native speakers. It is common for Koreans to study English online with Filipino tutors. Recently, Korea began issuing visas for Filipino English teachers, and many are teaching in Seoul already. Of course, this has elicited a disturbingly racist backlash from Koreans and native speaking teachers alike. The tried and true divide and rule tactic of pitting different laboring groups against each other is in effect.
A more ominous trend threatening English teachers in Korea comes from the robotics obsession. Many Korean public schools are toying with the idea of English teaching robots. Advanced prototypes are already being tested as teacher assistants in the Daegu school district. The Korean government hopes to replace most, if not all, of the expensive native speakers with robots by the end of this decade. A flesh-and-blood native English teacher might be a thing of the past in Korea very soon, becoming a luxury reserved for children of the well-to-do. The robot teacher is praised as an awe-inspiring innovation, when in reality it is a direct assault on all teachers everywhere. Not to mention the absurdity!
Sadly, English teaching jobs are becoming harder to obtain and less desirable, and it will only get worse. The ability to counter this offensive in Korea depends on English teachers joining the ranks of the militant migrant labor groups in Korea. Groups such as the Migrants’ Trade Union have been fighting for immigrant rights in Korea for almost a decade. English teachers historically have had nothing to do with this growing movement, being privileged and above it. I think it’s time for us to make common cause with the Sri Lankan construction workers, and take our place among the ranks of the more downtrodden migrant workers. Solidarity is the cure here. Otherwise, the native English teacher in Korea is set for an ignominious decline, and jobless college grads like myself will have one less employment option.