On April 16, 2014, 26-year-old Kim Cho-won and 31-year-old Lee Ji-hye, teachers from Danwon High School, rushed downstairs from their fifth-floor cabin as the ferry they were on began to list.
They ran across the doomed vessel in a desperate attempt to get as many students to safety as they could. It was the last time they were seen alive, as the two teachers were among 304 killed when the Sewol ferry capsized on that fateful day.
Earlier this week, the Ministry of Personnel Management said the two could not be subject to the screening process to be considered “killed in the line of duty.” The reason was that they were temporary teachers. This effectively barred their families from being compensated in the same way as those of the nine other teachers who died in the accident.
“I cannot accept that my daughter is being discriminated in her death. I urge the people to help me so my daughter’s honor can be restored,” Kim Seok-woo, the father of late Kim Cho-won, said Tuesday at a press conference in front of Seoul Government Complex. He and Lee Jong-rak, father of Lee Ji-hye, visited the government officials and submitted a petition to reconsider their decision, signed by 120,000 teachers across the country.
The incident was a reminder of the discrimination temporary teachers in the country still face, even the ones who had perished in what is widely considered a heroic death.
In Korea, one wishing to acquire a permanent teaching job at elementary, middle and high schools must receive a teacher‘s credentials from certified colleges or universities. Then they must pass a state-commissioned test and be appointed by the government to receive the status of “education civil servant.”
Those who were college-certified but did not pass the state test can only get temporary jobs, which deprives them of many benefits other teachers are entitled to. This includes job security, joining the civil servant pension program, and providing financial compensation to government officials who are killed on the job.
Temporary teachers say they often fall victim to discrimination at work, both from the school administration and their coworkers.
“My students received an award from a state-sponsored competition, so I filed a report on it. But then I learned that temporary workers cannot claim credit for their contribution, so I had to fill in the forms under the name of another teacher who held a permanent post,” said a 31-year-old temporary teacher at a Seoul-based middle school.
Temporary teachers are also the first in line for doing remedial classes, he added. Some faculty members, like the principal, even ask them to run personal errands.
In 2012, the local court ordered schools to pay bonuses to the temporary teachers. The case is currently pending decision by the Supreme Court.
Whether or not the temporary teachers should be considered education civil servants has sparked controversy here. The Personnel Ministry stated that Kim and Lee could not receive benefits for education civil servants, as they had different working conditions and did not contribute to the civil servants pension program.
But a study by the National Assembly Research Service ― commissioned by Rep. Jeong Jin-hoo of the minor Justice Party ― found that the current law implies that temporary workers should be subject to the education civil servant law.
Clause 32 of the education civil servant law states that those appointed as temporary teachers are considered “education workers,” and clause 2 of the same law stipulates that education workers working at an educational institute are considered education civil servants.
Last month, 69 lawmakers including Jeong proposed a joint resolution that urged the government to recognize Kim and Lee as education civil servants killed on the job.
Local teachers’ groups have also voiced complaints about the temporary teachers not being entitled to privileges.
“Teachers exist for students. And a teacher trying to protect lives of students should be respected above all, whether one is a temporary teacher or not,” said Kim Dong-seok, the spokesperson for the Korea Federation of Teacher’s Associations. He said that compensating the deceased teachers as education civil servants can contribute to boosting the morale of all temporary teachers, since it delivers a message that the government respects teachers who are willing to sacrifice themselves for students.
The Korea Teachers and Education Workers’ Union on Tuesday submitted a petition ― signed by 90,000 citizens ― urging the government to compensate all teachers equally.
“Both Kim and Lee tried their best even though they were treated unfairly. But now they are being discriminated in their death,” said the KTU. “We will continue fighting with the families (Kim and Lee) until our demands are accepted by the government.”
While Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea has expressed hopes for the two teachers’ recognition, the ministry’s efforts have been limited. “In principle, we hope that it will happen. But there isn’t much we can do since it is really not up to us,” said a high-ranking ministry official Wednesday, denying earlier reports that the education and personnel ministries had agreed to pursue policies to compensate the two teachers as education civil servants.
Kim Seong-wook told local media that he would not give up until his daughter receives what he believes is the proper treatment as a teacher at Danwon. “Her students came up to me and asked why she was discriminated (in the government compensation). To them, she was their teacher. They don’t care if she held a temporary job or a permanent one,” he said.
By Yoon Min-sik