This is the ninth discussion in my (albeit interrupted) series on worker rights.
Today, I would like to discuss the extent to which expatriates of western countries or other foreign employees should be expected to tolerate employment practices in their host country which would not be acceptable in their home countries.
Broadly speaking, I feel that acceptable employment practices should be defined according to the laws and customs of the host country, and that it is the responsibility of expatriate staff to adapt and fit in with their host culture.
But there are limitations to this, and expatriates should not be expected to tolerate work practices or conditions which are either represent a breach of contractual or human rights or are otherwise unreasonable.
Working overseas – a rewarding experience
Working in a foreign country can be a wonderful experience, both for expatriate employees and their host employers.
Such arrangements offer the opportunity for expatriate employees to experience full immersion into a culture and way of life which is different from that of their home country, whilst at the same time providing the host employer with fresh perspectives, exposure to global best practice, professional expertise (which may potentially be lacking at a domestic level) and a better understanding of target markets within the developed world.
Personally, my experience in Korea, where I have taught English in a public school for the past three and a half years, has been easily the most rewarding experience in my (albeit short) career to-date, and one which I will no doubt cherish for the rest of my life.
Problems can arise, however, where cultural values clash, and expectations of what is acceptable differ between expatriate employees and their host employer.
In such circumstances, I feel that both parties have a responsibility to exercise a considerable degree of flexibility, and to adopt a position of mutual respect toward the cultural values of each other.
Nevertheless, as stated above, I feel that the laws and cultural values of the host country should take precedence over those of the home country of the expatriate in terms of defining acceptable employment practices, and that it is primarily the responsibility of the expatriate employee to adapt to the ways and customs of his or her host employer, not the other way around.
Some practices not acceptable
But there are limitations to this, and there are certain practice which in my view should never be considered to be acceptable, regardless of cultural considerations.
Such practices include.
• any practices which constitute an abuse of human rights;
• failure on behalf of the employer to honor contractual obligations; or
• any practices which are otherwise plainly unreasonable or unfair.
The second point above is an area where I have seen conflict arise over and over again during my time in Korea, where attempts by host employers to short change expatriate employees on contractual provisions with respect to wages, housing or working hours are all too common. (The former employer of one friend of mine once literally doubled her work hours without providing any increase in pay)
Granted, these problems are usually the result of cash flow issues or simple bastardry, but cultural issues may also be a contributing factor, since contracts do not carry as much weight as they do in western countries.
This should not be tolerated. Any lack of respect for contractual rights of expatriate staff represents a form of manipulative behavior which should not be tolerated, regardless of cultural considerations, and employees who are subject to this form of treatment should not feel obligated to continue in service to their host employer unless an amicable solution can be reached.
(Fortunately for me, I work in the public school system, and have personally experienced any problems in this regard, or else I would have been on the first plane home.
But I have heard plenty of stories from others who have not been so fortunate, particularly those who teach in privately owned academies.)