When it comes to your China employment law matter, you should keep the following three important precepts always in mind:
- China’s employment laws and its legal system favor employees over employers. As in most countries, the employer is presumed to be the more powerful party, so the law provides the employee with many protections. Among other things, this means that in most employer-employee disputes, the employer (not the employee) will bear the burden of proving what actually happened, and if the employer cannot prove it (usually with written documentation in Chinese) the employee will prevail.
- China’s employment laws cannot usually be modified by contract.
- China employment law is very local. What you can or cannot do in Shenzhen could be different from what you can or cannot do in Beijing. Before making any important employment move, you should check the rules for China, the rules for your province, the rules for your city and, in most cases, you should discuss with your local labor and employment authorities as well. Failing to do this is what causes foreign employers problems. See also China Employment Law: Simple Questions and Complex Answers.
This post is about how the second rule impacts China employee vacation days — an often-litigated employment law issue in China.
Let’s consider a hypothetical based on a question our China employment lawyers are often asked. A China employer’s Rules and Regulations provide that its employees are entitled to the statutory minimum number of vacation days and no carry-over of vacation time is allowed. Let’s further assume that the Rules and Regulations state that the employees have the responsibility to make sure they take all their vacation days within the relevant calendar year and they are expected to keep track of their vacation days. Lastly, the Rules and Regulations provide that if the employee fails to take all or part of his or her vacation time, the employee will be deemed to have given up all unused vacation days and cannot claim any compensation for such days. A disgruntled employee then sues the employer for 300% pay for all of her unused vacation days. The employer’s response is to refer to its Rules and Regulations and the fact that this particular employee signed an acknowledgment of receipt form acknowledging receipt of these Rules and Regulations and refuses to pay the employee anything on the basis that she knowingly and voluntarily forfeited all her unused vacation days.
The employer then asks one of our China lawyers what it should do.
When I or another of our China lawyers gets this type of question, the first thing we do is gather up more facts. What city is it? What does the employment contract actually say? Is it in Chinese (which makes it a lot harder for the employee to deny knowing what he or she signed) and a lot easier for the court to know what it says. What do the Rules and Regulations actually say and is that in Chinese as well? Most importantly, what is actually going on with this employee and this employee’s anger with her employer and what actually happened regarding vacation time. Many times the best way to resolve a loaded employee-employer dispute like this is to get both parties to step away, calm down and compromise, realizing that full-on expensive litigation is not in anyone’s best interest.
For purposes of the discussion here, however, I am going to assume a number of things, like the following:
- The employer Rules and Regulations were lawfully implemented. In other words, the employer followed all applicable national, state and local laws with respect to its implementation. This means it gave its employees prior notice of the Rules and Regulations and it gave them an opportunity to comment on them.
- The employer never made any arrangements for the employee to take her vacation time or if it did, it does not have contemporaneous written proof of this;
- The employer never obtained a written request from the employee expressly stating that she would not take those days for personal reasons (i.e., reasons not related to the employer).
Before I give my analysis, let me first give you our loyal readers a super quick review of the applicable China law on vacation time: All China employers are required to provide their employees with paid vacation days based on each employee’s total years of service. Employers are also legally obligated to ensure their employees take their vacation days and to the extent an employer fails to do so, it must pay the employee an additional 200% of her normal wages for each unused vacation day.
So, what has the employer in my hypothetical above done wrong? The below is an non-exhaustive list:
First, the employer’s vacation policy in its Rules and Regulations is probably illegal because it shifts the employer’s obligation to the employee. I say “probably” because the law on this, like so many other China employment laws is very localized. The law says the employer must ensure all employees take their legally entitled vacation time and if that is not possible, the employer must pay the employee in lieu of the vacation days. Many jurisdictions in China very strictly interpret this law. The Western mindset that if you don’t exercise your legal rights, you waive or lose them does not comport with the legal reality here. It does not matter that the employee signed off on the receipt of the employer’s Rules and Regulations. The employee did not waive her rights to vacation time.
Even if the employer’s policy on vacation time were legal (which is not going to be the case just about everywhere in China), the employer (not the employees) should stay on top of tracking their employees’ vacation time. The employer’s failure to keep track of this particular employee’s vacation time, standing alone, would probably be enough for the employee to prevail in any litigated or arbitrated dispute. A laid-back management style does not work for China.
Second, the employer never obtained the employee’s written request expressly stating she would not take those vacation days for personal reasons. Of course, very few employees would go along with a voluntary forfeiture of their mandatory vacation days. If an employer is going to argue that one of its employees voluntarily relinquished her vacation days, the employer must be able to produce relevant evidence of this because the employer bears the burden of proving this. And without something in writing from the employee showing that she herself expressly requested that she be able to give up her vacation time, the employer is going to lose, and the employer’s Rules and Regulations and the employee’s signed acknowledgment of receipt form are not going to change this result.
Finally, suppose the employment relationship in the above hypothetical has been formally terminated and the employee has sued. The employer really should have dealt with this vacation issue before it got sued. China employees are getting increasingly serious about enforcing their legal rights under Chinese labor laws and this makes it essential that employers seek to resolve all outstanding issues between them and their employees before termination. Otherwise, there is a good chance the employee will bring a claim for whatever issues are outstanding, including unused vacation time. A well-crafted termination/separation agreement will ensure that the employee will not and cannot come back seeking payment for unused vacation time (or whatever) and that if she does, the court will rule against the employee because the parties have a legally binding and enforceable agreement covering the issue.
Bottom line: Employers too often believe they have China-centric and legally binding Rules and Regulations when they don’t. They often also think they have great evidence against their employee(s) when they don’t. Employers often blame their employees for not doing everything the employers are supposed to do under China employment laws and this will mean the employer will almost certainly lose in any dispute regarding the contested issue. Still think you are in compliance with China’s employment laws? Maybe you should think again.