▲ Labor Office officials, including Shin Chang Joo, right, may be able to help residents in employment disputes. Photos by Jean K. Min
Any new job has its ups and downs. The first day starts the initial honeymoon period and everything seems great. Then time passes and one gets a more realistic view of what will actually be required. Sometimes a job gets continually better as one assimilates into the new work environment. But sometimes, things turn sour and the atmos-phere at work is tense, stressful and unpleasant. This is im-measurably compounded when one is far from home, bound by a seemingly endless contract, and dependent on an employer for translation services. So how can the Jeju Labor Office help if your work environment becomes unbearable?
The Jeju Labor Office of the Ministry of Labor is located in the Jeju Government Office building in Shin Jeju, near the stadium. It’s in the central building in the rear tower on the first floor. Shin Chang Joo, a labor administrator, provided information on what the labor board can do for frustrated employees.
The Labor Office has several English-speaking employees who are available during office hours of Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. For other languages, a phone translation service (1577-0177) is used for communication. For those who work until 5 p.m., an appointment can be scheduled for 5:30 or 5:45 by calling the office at 064-728-6100.
There is a distinction between situations the Labor Board can assist with and issues that must be resolved in the court system. The Labor Board can step in when there is an actual asset to be attained, i.e. a worker is contractually owed an agreed amount of money and the employer is withholding it. Any dispute beyond the acquiring of assets becomes personal and a legal suit must be filed for any further resolution.
So, if an employee is not being paid as agreed and has failed to resolve the situation on their own, he or she can go to the Labor Board and file a petition. An appointment will be scheduled that is convenient for the employee, at which the appropriate steps to be taken will be discussed.
If an employee feels that they have been unfairly terminated near the end of their contract (so the employer can escape paying the severance bonus and airfare), he or she can file a petition. In this situation, it is important to look at the facts of the case rationally. If there is any reason the employer can claim the teacher violated the contract, it will probably not be possible for the Labor Board to be involved. The board would instead refer the employee to the legal system, where they could file a legal petition to sue the employer. This is only possible if one can prove that the employer withheld money or benefits that they were contractually obligated to pay.
As for contracts, there is a loophole that is not to the advantage of foreign workers. Any contract signed before arrival in Korea is not valid, despite the elaborate ceremony of signing the contract and faxing it back. According to Korean law, contracts are only valid if signed in Korea. This can be shocking to a teacher who arrives to find a contract drastically different than the one already signed. In this case, the teacher is not obligated to continue with that employer as the contract signed is not legal, so it is possible to go to immi-gration and request a tourist visa while looking for a new job. Knowing your rights will proba-bly scare the employer into honoring the previous agree-ment.
If an employee needs to leave their contract early for any reason and is unable to get employer consent, the standard period of notice in Korea is 30 days. Even if the contract states a longer notice period, an employee is legally protected from suit if they provide 30 days notice. If the employee resorts to a midnight run and doesn’t give the employer any notice of their contract termina-tion, the employer can sue, even if an employee is overseas, and this can affect the employee’s permanent international legal record.
In any of these cases, Shin reminded foreign workers that the Labor Board is a govern-ment bureaucracy and things can take a lot of time. If an employee walks into the labor board the night before a flight home is scheduled and demands payment, it will be impossible for the board to help. But, if an employee who is owed money is willing to stay and fight for it, they can ask immigration for a visa extension during the process. With the investment of two to three months, the employer can be forced to pay if there is a legitimate complaint.
Shin also cautioned that Korean employers tend to be emotional and base decisions on their feelings, whereas Western employees are usually more rational and focused on facts. The best way to combat workplace tension is to take some preventative measures to make friends with the employer by being nice to them and doing the job as expected. He also said that employees sitting down with the employer over a bottle of Soju can sometimes go a long way toward resolving workplace disputes.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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