Life in Korea: 20 things to check on your contract

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Author’s note: I am not a lawyer – just a blogger reasonably seasoned in reading contracts and figuring out what’s missing. This is not necessarily an all-inclusive list – if I’m missing something, comments are open!

Contracts are a tricky thing – while some are barely worth the paper they’re printed on, others have some force to them. They’re not typically written to benefit you, and there are plenty of protections for the party that writes it. Since there is no such thing as one standard contract, things might be left out that really need to be included.

Although no contract is guaranteed and foolproof, having specifics written into the contract will prevent some of the most common misunderstandings – and give you something to take to the boss or court if need be. Written paperwork does tend to have more weight than oral statements in that case.

Author’s note: I am not a lawyer – just a blogger reasonably seasoned in reading contracts and figuring out what’s missing. This is not necessarily an all-inclusive list – if I’m missing something, comments are open!

Contracts are a tricky thing – while some are barely worth the paper they’re printed on, others have some force to them. They’re not typically written to benefit you, and there are plenty of protections for the party that writes it. Since there is no such thing as one standard contract, things might be left out that really need to be included.

Although no contract is guaranteed and foolproof, having specifics written into the contract will prevent some of the most common misunderstandings – and give you something to take to the boss or court if need be. Written paperwork does tend to have more weight than oral statements in that case.

Without further ado, these are the MUST-HAVE things to look for on your contract:

  • Where will you work? The name / address of the school is a pre-requisite, otherwise you’re teaching wherever you’re told to.
  • How much are you paid? Whether it’s an hourly rate or a salary rate, the contract needs to tell you. If you’re making a salary, there should also be a maximum number of teaching hours per work. After that, you should be making overtime at an hourly rate – make sure that rate is specified too. Note that ‘preparation hours’ or time spent in meetings is not usually counted as teaching hours.
  • On what day will you be paid? The 15th, the 10th, the 20th, etc.? It should also state that your paycheck will be deposited into your bank account. Getting paid in cash, while not a bad thing, may indicate the school is trying to keep you ‘under the table’ – not usually a good sign.
  • What is your period of employment? In other words, when is your start date and when will your contract be completed?
  • Does the contract mention ‘orientation’ or ‘training’? This should not be unpaid, although some schools won’t pay your full / normal salary during this time. If there are any ‘settling down’ or ‘settlement’ allowances written in, make sure you receive these.
  • What will your hours be? Contracts don’t usually guarantee you specific hours or a specific schedule, although most will say the ‘typical’ hours you’ll be teaching or at least when the school is in session.
  • Beyond teaching classes, what are you expected to do? This is one section that will almost certainly feature broad brushstrokes instead of fine details. Expect to see grading, administrative work, curriculum design, other classroom activities, and attending teachers meetings at a bare minimum.
  • What sort of deductions will there be? The contract should mention deductions for Korean income tax, the National Health Insurance program, the national pension program, and so on. While specific amounts aren’t usually mentioned, any other deductions should be made perfectly clear.
  • How do sick days work? In most cases, you’ll be expected to contact the school as soon as possible, and to get a doctor’s note to show the school once you’re better. Since you’re putting a burden on the rest of the school, try to avoid taking a sick day unless it’s actually needed.
  • How is your plane ticket being handled? Ideally, the school will pay for the ticket directly instead of reimbursing you for it at a later date, although the former is becoming less common. If you’re doing a visa run to pick up a new visa, the school may pay for that instead of reimbursing you for your expense. In either case, there may be a clause that states the teacher has to pay for the plane ticket if they quit / leave within 6 months. Every contract is different – read carefully.
  • What sort of housing are you receiving? Ideally, the contract will spell out exactly what will be in the apartment (bed, bookshelf, table / desk, fridge, microwave, gas range, washing machine, TV, etc.). While simply saying a ‘furnished’ apartment leaves a lot of room for interpretation, it does bring to mind most of the aforementioned items. If there’s something seriously missing, however, it’s worth asking about. Be sure you understand if the housing is intended for you and you alone, or if it’s meant to be shared with another teacher. The latter is rare, but it does happen from time to time. An important note: if you decline the furnished housing you’re usually eligible for a housing allowance, which should also be stated.
  • Who pays the apartment’s utilities? In most cases you’ll be responsible for them. Asking about any maintenance fees is also a good thing to ask.
  • Is there a deposit or other restrictions when it comes to the housing? It’s typical to state that no one may live in the apartment except for the employee, and anyone else seeking to live with the employee must get permission first. In the case of a deposit, the employer has almost always put down key money on the apartment, and may collect something from you to cover any damages or unpaid bills you might leave behind. You’ll be able to collect it once all the accounts have been settled – usually the remainder is wired to an account of your choice, with the employer paying the wiring fees. Check, don’t assume.
  • What holidays are considered part of the school schedule? Simply saying ‘all national holidays’ or ‘all Korean holidays’ might be sufficient, but the ideal contract will name the specific holidays (sorry, but Koreans don’t get White Day off, and neither will you). Don’t expect the contract to include a holiday schedule – ask about that once the job has started.
  • What’s the dress code? If you’re working at a kindergarten hagwon there may not be a dress code; working with adults usually requires a ‘professional’ look – slacks and dress shirts.
  • What about summer / winter camps? Working them is usually a requirement or strong recommendation – whatever the case, there should be adequate information explaining the hours and pay during those times.
  • What sort of vacation(s) are included? It’s natural for a school to give vacation during a seasonal break or other extended school break, but watch out for desk-warming (reporting for work even when the school is officially on vacation).
  • What happens at the end of the contract? Once you’ve completed the full contract, you’ll be eligible for a pension refund or severance pay (it is NOT a “bonus” as many contracts claim – once you’ve worked one calendar year, you’re eligible for it no matter what). If you keep working for the same school, the general rate is one month’s pay per one year of work.
  • Under what circumstances can you be fired on the spot? These may include breaking the laws of South Korea, teaching private lessons, showing up to work drunk / high and may also include being late / absent more than X number of times, insubordination, or telling others the details about your contract. Avoid these things unless you like spending your hard-earned savings for a flight out.
  • For what reasons can you be fired / terminated / released from your contract? Without cause or any other reason, a 30-day notice is normal; some schools may require or give a 45- or 60-day notice.

If all of this sounds obsessive, ask any experienced Korean expat: the devil, in this case, is on paper. If it ain’t on paper, there’s no guarantee you’re getting it.

If something isn’t right, point it out – no contract is unalterable, and few have to be signed on the spot. After waiting for a problem / unclear area to be fixed, be sure to check everything else is unchanged before signing.

Veteran expats / contract readers – did I miss anything? What else should one ask about or watch out for?

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.



2 thoughts on “Life in Korea: 20 things to check on your contract”

  1. Agreed!

    I agree with Chris, if the contract doesn’t have this stuff and they won’t change it if you bring it up—you don’t want the school. Also, something I’ve found with Hagwons is that they’ll say something in a verbal agreement and say don’t worry we are nice/we want to treat you well…but if it isn’t in writing it DOESN’T count and most likely won’t be adhered to. Don’t forget, Korea is a very ‘yes, yes’ culture but that doesn’t mean the yes’d item will get done. 

    However, public school contracts are pretty much all the same and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for negotiation, particularly for new teachers.

    Also…table and chair (at least one) should definitely be listed on the furnishings list or you’ll likely end up with an apartment not big enough for one. A local expat ended up in an apartment that doesn’t have it’s own toilet, he has to use the public one in the hall to pee. You might want to verify that your apartment will have a private bathroom (no matter how small)

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  2. Thank you Chris for taking

    Thank you Chris for taking the time to complete such a detailed list. I’d like to add a thing a two within the area of compensation and housing.

    Contract hour; Is one class defined as one hour? or a true hour or do you minus the break (10minutes) and add another class at the end of the day?

    Stipend; Do you offer one? some people would rather live away from the clutches of the school or hogwan. Also some directors don’t want to be bothered with such stuff. It really is easier for everyone if you just get your own housing even if it means a love hotel. Plus some of the mildew infested places I have seen would make a cockroach barf. 

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