Wednesday, December 15, 2004

another EC rant

Today (Tuesday, I mean) was both marvelous and shitty. Marvelous, because my schedule was amazingly light (it's been fairly light ever since I switched partners, as happens at EC every few months). Shitty, because I had the first of our so-called "pay meetings" today.

Pay meetings weren't a regular feature of expat life at EC, but one of my colleagues felt they would be a good idea, and I agreed. My colleague's point was that, up to now, there's been almost no communication between our boss, Imelda (not her real name), and the expat teachers. The impression we expats get is that management is distant and aloof, making declarations from on high.

EC's Korean teachers have had pay meetings on a regular basis, and they're almost never pleasant. The meetings are an opportunity for management to bitch at staff about student complaints, absences, low reregistration rates, and whatever else comes to mind.

True to form, today's pay meetings weren't pleasant for most of the expats, either. In my case, the first item of business was my lab coat, or rather, why I don't wear it. I told Imelda it was stifling (only part of the truth; I decided not to get into the whole "it's fucking degrading" bit). She said that my lack of a lab coat didn't concern her, but the bu-wonjang-nim (vice president of EC) saw me without the coat the other day and commented on it. Her tactic was the classic guilt trip: "I don't care about the lab coat, but please wear it or I'll get in trouble." I told Imelda I would talk to the veep and explain my position. I've decided to wuss out: if he insists I wear the lab coat, I'll cave in and wear it. The benefit to you, the reader, is that you'll finally see me in the monkey suit, reduced at last to powder-blue indignity.

Next order of business was my pay. I'd worked three Saturdays in October, which meant I'd gotten an extra W100,000 in November. I was also promised by B, one of the front desk workers (no longer with us), that I would be working only one Saturday in December, but for less pay. I agreed that this was fair, and assumed I'd see the deduction in my January pay (the money we receive is always for the previous calendar month).

So: I worked a normal two Saturdays in November, which meant I should have gotten a normal W2.2 million (before taxes) this month. Instead, I got 2.1 mil (1.8 after that deduction, plus taxes). Somewhat pissed off, I asked for an explanation. The one given was complete bullshit: according to Imelda, B never told her that I'd been promised a single Saturday of work in December. Therefore, this confusion was all B's fault, and Imelda's solution, once she "found out" about my arrangement, was to lop off W100,000 from this month's pay. But why? Shouldn't the deduction occur in my January pay, since I'm working only one Saturday in December?

Try to imagine this. B, a front desk worker in constant communication with her immediate boss, Imelda, somehow failed to mention a rather important arrangement involving one of the expat teachers (and there are only six of us). I don't buy it. I think Imelda's looking to shift blame onto B because B's moved to another branch. Imelda assumes I won't do the legwork of tracking B down and asking for her side of the story, which means Imelda underestimates how psychotic I can get when I've been fucked over. I will be asking B for her side of the story. Soon.

The debate over my pay became heated, switching from English to Korean. Both Imelda's and my face were getting pink. In the end, Imelda said she wouldn't be deducting anything from my January pay-- i.e., I will be receiving a full W2.2 million (before taxes), as if I'd worked two Saturdays in December instead of one.

Question for the audience: do you, for a moment, think I trust Imelda?

My current Korean teaching partner, D, has been a trouper at EC since before I signed on. He worked a split shift for nine months without complaining. While many Americans will be quick to blame D for not having said anything earlier, I tend to be more understanding: work conditions are shitty everywhere in Korea. There's always some boss somewhere trying to fuck you over. If you come to love Korea, it's unlikely that that love will have anything to do with your job (unless you've got a cushy company job or a decent university job at a place that actually cares about academic integrity). What would D gain by rebelling?

For Koreans at EC, conditions are much worse than they are for expats. First, Koreans are paid less. Second, they are the ones whose pay is affected by reregistration rates, absenteeism, and the like (we expats are, in principle, on salary; even if students complain about us, it doesn't affect our pay). Third, Korean employees get no vacation and no sick days. Is that fucked up or what?

EC outrages me on several levels, and I'm having trouble deciding whether my own situation or that of my Korean colleagues is more upsetting. The problem, too, is that, for expats, work conditions at EC aren't all that hellish: we don't have to create lesson plans, nor do we have to send out homework assignments and keep in constant phone contact with the students-- something our Korean counterparts all have to do. The hell resides in (1) the local branch's perverse management, and (2) the rays of ultimate evil emanating from EC headquarters in Yeoksam, just down the street from us.

The EC system, as it's set up, doesn't encourage a teamwork dynamic. If a student has a complaint about an expat, the complaint goes to Imelda first, where it's then passed along to the Korean partner teacher, who then has the sorry duty of breaking the news to the expat that something's up. I've received only one complaint so far (and in my arrogance have dismissed it as illegitimate), but this was the route the complaint took. Other expat colleagues say the same thing. It's a terrible way to run a school, but it's also quite Confucian: direct confrontation is to be avoided, especially if the student (whose status is lower) has a problem with a teacher (whose status is higher). The student complains to someone higher than the teacher, like Imelda; Imelda, being of higher rank, can dump on the teachers at will, because Confucianism is gravity-operated: complaints, like shit, float downstream.

Because expats and Koreans are paid differently, our motivations are different, and this also affects the teamwork dynamic. When a student calls in to say he can't make class, this gets counted against the Korean teacher who, if s/he accrues too many absences, can receive a pay cut or even be fired. The expat teachers, on the other hand, view every absence with joy: "Yay-- a half-hour break!"

Thanks to a recent measure instituted by K, the founder of EC, Korean teachers are now able to view each other's absentee and reregistration rates. The idea, which I find fucking twisted, is that this disclosure will spur the Korean teachers to be more competitive with each other. This, in turn, will theoretically drive down absentee rates. Everybody wins!

The problem, of course, is that such a system simply increases the Korean teachers' sense of desperation. Even the teachers with very low absentee rates get nervous, because now they're afraid of being resented by their colleagues. More important than this, however, is that the whole notion of determining a teacher's pay by calculating absentee and reregistration rates is a sham.

Students fail to come to class for a variety of reasons. Most EC students are adults, usually businesspeople. As such, their schedules are in constant flux. Meetings run overtime, or the company is experiencing some sort of crisis. Students also get sick, or have family/personal problems requiring their attention. None of this is anything the Korean teachers at EC can control, and yet these factors help determine whether one is paid well or fired.

The upshot of all this is that I've been shopping around for another job. EC, as I may have mentioned a while back, was never my first choice for employment. A buddy of mine has a possible lead: a proofreading/copy editing position for a major news agency here. The pay sounds fantastic: over W3 million a month, which would be quite a leap upwards for yours truly. There's some competition for this position, naturally, so I'm not assured a spot. But I've sent my resume in. We'll see.

If I get the job, I'll find it hard to say goodbye to students and co-workers. I have no complaints about my students, even about the one who complained. I've been lucky to have good partners, too: J, J, and D have all been great. But I don't want to continue working for an organization so bent on dehumanizing its employees. While I doubt the news agency job will be much better in that respect, it has the added benefits of better pay and civilized hours. It'll also be free of the typical hagwon-related bullshit with which we expats are all too familiar.

I should note, however, that life at EC is nothing like the hell Shawn Matthews went through during his first few months in Korea. I finished his book, Island of Fantasy, yesterday, and can honestly say I sympathize: Shawn had it bad. The "Wonder School" Shawn describes was breathtakingly brazen in its maltreatment of employees. One of Wonder School's owners comes off as nearly psychotic. I've known psychotic Korean bosses, so I can relate to Shawn's experience. While I'll be happy to find greener pastures, I can't say that EC gets as high a shit-o-meter rating as some other hagwons do.

Wish me luck. More news as it happens.


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