By John Power and Monica Suk
Job opportunities for native English speakers have grown in recent years along with Korea’s global standing, extending beyond the traditional refuge of teaching. But not all native speakers are equally employable when it comes to the color of their skin.
One such case was a job advertisement last December for assistant to the CEO of a high-profile Oriental medicine hospital in Seoul.
The ad, emailed by a then-staffer at a recruiting company to a professional acquaintance for recommendations, sought a native English-speaking Caucasian to deal with foreign patients and manage files in English.
The ad also specified that the applicant be female, aged 25-32 and be from the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand or England. It declared no preference for martial status. The hospital in question runs an international clinic and regularly advertizes to foreigners.
When contacted, the ex-staffer at the recruiter denied that the ad represented racial discrimination, instead describing the reference to race as a “preference.”
“Many people go and consult a doctor need a person who is…people could…” she said, trailing off, before agreeing that patients needed someone they would be “comfortable” with.
“They just told us the kind of people they need, and it was not a must-qualification. The race was not a must-qualification. Black people could apply but there was a preference.”
She later said, however, that the hospital had not asked her former employer to specify any particular race or gender. She claimed to have forgotten the name of the company she had worked for and who had decided to include the reference to race.
She also said the ad was not publically circulated because to do so would have been discriminatory.
A spokesman for the hospital denied it had anything to do with the ad: “All we asked the headhunter was to find a Gyopo (Korean-American) who can speak Englishand Korean fluently. All we did is to interview the candidates on the list that the headhunter sent us.”
The advert seen by The Korean Herald, however, indicated that proficiency in Korean was not necessary.
The spokesman added that the assistant to the CEO position was ultimately filled with a Korean-American.
A spokesman for the recruiting company also denied it made any specifications regarding race.
“I mean it makes no sense. Does it make sense to you? What kind of a right-minded person would write such a comment on a job opening announcement?” he said.
“As far as I know she’s (the former staffer who sent the job advert) not the type of person who would discriminate people against gender or race. It’s hard to believe that she did this.”
The names of the hospital and the recruiter, whose website features pictures of people of a number of different races, have been withheld to protect the source of the email from the threat of legal action and blacklisting.
Racial discrimination presents itself in less high-profile positions, too, affecting the hiring process for native English teachers.
In October, an ad on Koreabridge.net stated “Caucasians are preferred” for positions at two schools in Deungchon-dong and Songpa-gu in Seoul.
The director of Independent Start Korea, the recruiter behind the ad, said she removed the reference to race in later ads after receiving complaints as she did not wish to offend anyone.
She claimed that, from her experience, some 50 percent of hagwon prefer not to hire black people. The ad and its reference to race remained online at the time of going to print.
Another recruiter, based in Busan, stipulates “Caucasians only” in its internal requirements for native English-speaking teachers. The document, seen by The Korea Herald, also specifies lower pay grades for South African teachers than other nationalities.
While the law in Korea does prohibit unequal treatment of foreigners once they are employed, it is not illegal to discriminate on the basis of race in the hiring process.
“(In) The National Human Rights Commission’s law, there are certain guidelines about racial discrimination. But the Korean government doesn’t have a discrimination law about race at this moment,” said Park Seong-nam, migrant rights team director at the National Human Rights Commission.
The National Human Rights Commission Act 2001 in theory prohibits discrimination based on race but is non-binding. The Commission can take complaints from victims, provide advice and assistance and petition the government, but has no power to impose penalties or coerce private businesses.
“Personally, I think the Korean government has to make a law against discrimination, especially against race,” said Park.
In 2009, Democratic Party lawmaker Jun Byung-hun proposed a bill that would have criminalized racist language and behavior. The bill, which never made it out of the National Assembly, would also have covered mistreatment in employment, education, housing and financial and medical services.
The bill was proposed after a Korean man was prosecuted for contempt for racially insulting an Indian professor on a bus as no provision existed regarding racist language or actions.
By John Power and Monica Suk