Basics of China Business Law

China HR AuditIn part one of this series, I explained what has changed in China to make employer compliance — especially for foreign companies doing business in China — so important. In this part two, I explain what our China employment lawyers do in our HR audits to ensure that our clients are in compliance with China’s increasingly complicated, increasingly localized and increasingly important labor and employment laws.

An HR or employer audit will make sure you are complying with relevant employer laws (both national and local) and will reduce your regulatory, liability and lawsuit risks. Moreover, a comprehensive review and a full analysis can give you a clearer picture of what’s going on in your workforce and once you have the big picture, you can then determine (and we help our clients with this) the employer-employee problem(s) you need to remedy first.

We usually begin our HR audits by sending our clients a questionnaire to gain a basic understanding of their employer-employee situation in China.  We first ask our clients to provide the registered entity name and address (in both English and Chinese), as well as the official company registration document (usually: business license) for their China office(s). If you don’t have a China entity, there is no way your direct employment of a China employee is deemed legal under Chinese laws and your problems extend way beyond anything an HR audit can fix. See Doing Business in China with Deportation or Worse Hanging Over Your Head. We also ask our clients for an organizational chart of their China office(s), including the employee count for each location and a brief (1-2 paragraph) narrative describing how their China offices are organized and managed, including how HR matters are handled.

In order to complete a document review, we usually request all written employment documents used in their China office(s), specifically including any of the following:

  1. Documents containing job descriptions, including any postings on internal or external websites
  2. Offer letters
  3. Labor contracts (aka employment agreements)
  4. Rules and regulations (sometimes called an employee handbook or manual)
  5. Travel expense policies
  6. Non-compete agreements
  7. Intellectual property protection and/or confidentiality agreements
  8. Education reimbursement agreements
  9. Bonus agreements
  10. Settlement and/or severance agreements
  11. Other employment-related agreements (including company policies) presented or signed by any company representative, or signed by any employee
  12. Any documents filed with the local labor authorities

We want to review the executed copy of any and every document signed by an employee, including each individual employment agreement, along with any employment-related templates or forms used in their China offices. We ask our clients to advise if any of the above documents do not exist.

We also ask our clients to tell us of any any imminent employment related issues or questions they may have, such as imminent employment contract renewals, employment contract revisions in process, employee departures, and new hires. For example, if their China office is in the process of bringing in any new hires, we want to know about any potentially unresolved issues between the new hire and his/her previous employer. See Hiring Employees in China. Ideally, we would also review the employment documents executed by this person and his/her previous employer, but this is not always realistic.

If applicable, we also want to know how past terminations at the company were handled, and to that end we usually ask for a list of any former employees, including:

  1. their hire date
  2. their last date of employment
  3. whether the termination was voluntary or involuntary
  4. whether any severance payment was made
  5. any documents issued to the employee evidencing how the employment relationship was terminated
  6. a description of how the employer handled the transfer of social insurance and employee files.

Finally, we will want to know any particular HR problems the China office has experienced and any HR concerns they may have.

We then review the materials provided to us and we then prepare a written memorandum identifying any employment issues and providing recommendations and estimated costings for remedying the problems found. The time required to complete the audit depends on when the client responds to our questions and on what we find in the files. We then work with our clients to resolve issues that are raised by the audit.

The above may seem daunting at first, however your HR auditor would essentially handle most of the “dirty work” and it certainly beats being fined, named and shamed or criminally charged!

Negotiating with Chinese CompaniesJust read a post over at Andrew Hupert’s ChinaSolved Bog, entitled, 5 Negotiating Lessons from Sec. of State Tillerson’s Beijing Trip. Hupert, who I count among the foremost experts at negotiating with Chinese companies, uses Tillerson’s recent Beijing trip as the springboard for explaining five tips on how foreign companies should negotiate with Chinese companies.

Before I get to the five tips however, I want to highlight what I see as one of the best, one of the most realistic, and — most importantly — one of the most accurate descriptions on what it is like to negotiate with a Chinese company:

We’ve seen it before. The Chinese side raises their glasses of Mao-tai and proposes a long relationship of mutual understanding and joint cooperation. The western side “gambei’s” and then makes their own polite toast about “long term cooperation, success, and prosperity”.

Now, at this point the westerners feel they are done with the preliminary small talk, and are ready to begin the opening phase of the REAL negotiation.

The Chinese side feels they are running the new partnership, co-own the intellectual property, and will make all substantive decisions about operations, hiring, and distribution.

If you for any reason do not believe the above accurately reflects how the typical Chinese company views its dealings with foreign companies you should memorize the above and then in one year of dealing with China ask yourself again whether it is accurate or not, because it just is.

Now on to a some of the Hupert five.

That treacherous opening Chinese toast. Hupert notes how Tillerson, “like many western execs before him, . . . doesn’t seem to understand what the Chinese believe he’s agreed to. This is true. Our China lawyers almost never document a China deal without there being at least one issue on which our Western client believes the China side has agreed to something to which it has not. There are many explanations for why this always seems to be the case, ranging from cultural and language differences to the China-side penchant for agreeing to something to get something in return for that agreement and then retrenching from the previously agreed upon item after it has already succeeded in getting concessions from the Western side.

Manage the agenda, and then focus on individual deal points. Western negotiating protocol is to focus on the key negotiating goals, but Chinese negotiators “always” have a larger agenda. Or as Hupert puts it, “too many western executives fighting internal deadlines and hoping to satisfy their HQ sacrifice big-picture strategy for short-term deliverables.”

Watch the timing mismatch. “Don’t make real concessions now for longer-term promises.”  Western companies too often believe that if they make xyz concession to their Chinese counterparty now, their Chinese counterparty will make the next concession the next time around. Wrong. Where we see this a lot is with Western service companies cutting their rates to Chinese customers to “get into China now”  and “build loyalty, all with the plan to raise their prices later. Problem is that the Chinese company for whom you just cut your prices will view your loss leader pricing as their ceiling, not as a floor and it will move on to another naive Western company for its next contract. Or as Hupert puts it

You’re in the same boat – but who is the captain and who is the crew? Hupert concludes his post by highlighting how different perspectives so often can lead to problems down the road. Hupert uses the example of how it is “relatively easy to get a Chinese negotiator to agree in principle to a cooperative partnership,” but how that “cooperative partnership is viewed by the two sides will be very different. “Both sides tend to walk away thinking that they will have the power and authority to protect their interests and further their positions. In practice, however, Chinese tend to feel that they will call the shots on issues pertaining to China.”

For more on how to negotiate with Chinese companies, check out the following:

China AttorneysBecause of this blog, our China lawyers get a fairly steady stream of China law questions from readers, mostly via emails but occasionally via blog comments as well. If we were to conduct research on all the questions we get asked and then comprehensively answer them, we would become overwhelmed. So what we usually do is provide a super fast general answer and, when it is easy to do so, a link or two to a blog post that may provide some additional guidance. We figure we might as well post some of these on here as well. On Fridays, like today.

Though it is getting more difficult and expensive for foreign companies to do business in China, China’s burgeoning wealth means the number of companies wanting to sell one shirt to 1 percent of China’s middle class just keeps increasing. Many of those companies are realizing that one of the easiest ways to accomplish that is via their own distributer in China. See That’s Hot: China Distribution Contracts. One of the most common questions posed to our China attorneys about distribution relationships in China is whether they need to be exclusive or not. Oftentimes, these are not even in the form of a question, but rather the potential client or client telling us that they will be giving their distributor an exclusive for all of China because they “understand” the Chinese government requires that.

As we wrote in China Distribution Agreements: Exclusivity Is NOT Required, this is simply not true. Unfortunately, Chinese companies frequently claim this and sometimes even get away with it, sometimes with disastrous results for the foreign company.

Let me explain.

There is no exclusivity requirement in China. None. Nada. Zero. Zilch. 没有.

This means you can have five distributors of your product or in just Shanghai if you want, and then add ten more later. This means you can have an exclusive distribution relationship with one distributor for all of Shandong Province and still have ten distributors for just Beijing. You are legally free to do what you want when it comes to exclusivity in your distributor relationship in China; you are constrained only by the deal you are able to make.

Oh, and one more thing, Chinese companies love to use the term Greater China in their distribution contracts with foreign companies as many foreign companies do not realize that includes Hong Kong and Taiwan and Macao. So be careful about that also.

China contract lawyersIn my first post in this series (here), I described the five basic attitudes Chinese companies have regarding advanced equipment being sold into China.  In part 2 (here), I set out two of five tactics high value equipment sellers should follow when selling advanced (and therefore expensive) equipment into China: One, do not discount, and two, get paid before you deliver your equipment to your China buyer.

In this, part 3, I wrap up this series by setting forth the remaining three tactics equipment sellers should employ when selling their equipment to Chinese companies.

3. Do not deliver the equipment until first verifying that the conditions for its installation have been met. Remember that the Chinese side believes your equipment works based on an almost “magic” formula and your rules on how to set up for its installation and the specifications for its use are just a subterfuge you use to “hide the magic.” The detailed set up work is therefore unnecessary. Meeting the specifications is not necessary. So the Chinese side will not do the proper set up and they will ignore the specifications. But then when your equipment does not work as it was supposed to, the Chinese side will blame you for its failures.

The following are two (of many) true stories that illustrate how this typically goes down:

  • A heavy equipment manufacturing company delivers iron pipe casting equipment. The conditions of sale provide that the floor of the casting room must be perfectly level. When the equipment is delivered, the casting room has an uneven dirt floor. The casting machine does not work and the Chinese side does not pay a single penny on the contract. The Chinese bank that guaranteed the payment sides with the Chinese buyer. Why create a level, clean concrete floor for a dirty machine used for metal castings, one of the China company’s engineers asked at one point.
  • A water power equipment manufacturing company delivers a new hydropower generation set of equipment. The specifications provide that the current flow can never exceed 6 knots. When the equipment is delivered, the Chinese side installs it in an unapproved location where it is well known the current exceeds 8.5 knots. Within one year, the entire facility is destroyed. The Chinese side defaults on the last payment and the reputation of the foreign company is destroyed. The foreign company lost money on the project and never did another sale in China.

Foreign equipment sellers cannot rely just on clear contractual specifications and then relying on the specifications when there is a problem. The foreign seller should itself ensure the conditions are met before it delivers the equipment. And if the conditions are not met, the foreign seller should not deliver. If there is a cost in confirming your Chinese buyer has met the specifications (and there usually will be), you should build that cost into the cost for your product. Remember: the failure of the installation is always your fault and the Chinese side will always find a way to make you pay for that failure. We have said this before and it made people mad, but some of our most experienced and sophisticated and successful China essentially charge a premium to Chinese buyers simply to cover themselves in advance against these sorts of problems.

4. Build required training and after sales maintenance and support into the price of the equipment. No matter how much your potential Chinese buyer tries to get you to decouple the pricing for maintenance and support (and then eliminate it entirely) do not make these optional add-ons that are billed for an additional fee. If you make these optional and charge extra for them, the Chinese side will almost always choose not to pay. So you have to force them to accept training and support as part of your sales price.

Why do the Chinese refuse to pay? Your trying to require them to pay for after sales maintenance is just you admitting that your product is somehow defective and why should they buy a defective product. If properly manufactured your equipment should work forever, with no service or maintenance required and your trying to make the Chinese side pay for training and service as an add-on is you unfairly seeking to increase the price of a product that is already unfairly expensive.

There is one exception related to training. If the Chinese side is planning to clone your equipment, they will seek extensive training in how the equipment operates. Their goal though is not training; their goal is to somehow obtain the formula that will allow them to clone your machine. For this reason, you should carefully control your training with Chinese companies.

During training, the Chinese side will ask for more information and more training time than is necessary. They will also insist on visiting the U.S. manufacturing facility and they will expect to spend substantial time in that facility. For this reason, all training obligations must be carefully defined to prevent your costs from skyrocketing out of control. You should carefully limit time, location and access to information. One good way to control this is to require the Chinese pay by the hour for all training provided in excess of the basic training included in the purchase price.

Many foreign equipment suppliers say they will provide whatever training proves “reasonably” necessary. This sort of an approach is nearly always a mistake because neither Chinese companies nor Chinese courts truly understand or employ the concept of reasonable. You therefore should state state with precision the training you will be providing, where you be providing it, who will be providing it, and for how many hours you will be providing it. The same rules apply to provision for after sales support. Chinese companies tend to abuse after sales support obligations. So those obligations should also be spelled out clearly in your contracts as well. Again, I base this not on any “feelings” I have about China, but based on my having represented countless foreign equipment sellers on countless China equipment transactions and on what I have heard from other equipment companies and from other China lawyers who represent them.

5. Protect your IP through with a China-centric contract. Protecting the intellectual property you have in the advanced equipment you sell into China should be a core goal in all of your sales. Understand the basic approach from the Chinese side: your product is too expensive and b) any form of IP protection is just a unfair device you are using to force them to pay the unfair price of the machine. So the goal of the typical Chinese company is to purchase one or two items at a bargain price and then clone them in China at a “fair” price.

The obvious way to protect the intellectual property in your advanced equipment is to register your patents in China. But for various reasons (including time bars) this is often not possible. Where there is no patent registration (and oftentimes even when there is), your best solution is to incorporate basic IP protections into your sales agreement. This is essential for China.

To accomplish this, either your sales contract or a collateral agreement must provide for the buyer agreeing to the following:

  • Buyer will not reverse engineer or manufacture a copy/clone of the product or engage any affiliate or third party to do the same. A complex legal definition is not required. A blunt, simple statement (in Chinese) is what is required.
  • Define confidential information information (such as the information you provide in training and support) and require no confidential information can be used by your buyer or by any affiliate or by any third party to infringe on your product.
  • Provide for monetary damages if these restrictions are violated. Injunctions rarely work in China, so contract damages are required.
  • Impose these restrictions with a written agreement enforceable by litigation in China. This is a key requirement. Your English language sales agreement that is enforceable in the New York or in London or in Geneva is not going to be helpful in protecting your IP and if it makes sense for you to use that sort of agreement on the sell side (and sometimes it does), you should have a separate IP protection agreement in Chinese, subject to Chinese law and enforceable by litigation in China.

China employment lawyerThis is the first of a two part series on why it has become so important to comply with China’s labor and employment laws and how best to make sure your company is in compliance. In this first part, I briefly explain what has changed in China to make employer compliance — especially for foreign companies doing business in China so important. And in part 2, I explain what our China employment lawyers do by way of Human Relations audits to ensure our clients are in compliance.

Over the last few years China and Chinese employees have become serious about enforcing China’s labor and employment laws. I defy you to find any foreign employer in China that has not had their employer decisions legally tested in the last few years. And thanks to a new law called Measures of Public Disclosure of Significant Violations of Labor Protection Laws that took effect on January 1, 2017, China employers that violate China’s labor protection laws face the additional threat of being “named and shamed.” The following violations of China’s labor laws may be made public by the relevant labor authorities:

  • Failing to pay “substantial” employee remuneration
  • Violating the laws on working time or rest or vacation and the circumstances are “serious”
  • Violating any child labor laws
  • Failing to pay employee social insurance and the circumstances are “serious”
  • Violating the special rules on protecting female workers and underage workers and the circumstances are “serious”
  • Causing significantly bad social consequences due to violations of labor laws
  • Other serious illegal conduct

Like pretty much everything related to China’s employment laws, enforcement of these naming and shaming measures is going to depend on the locale. Guangdong Province, for example, has been disclosing labor authorities’ rulings on employer violations even before the new law was implemented. According to Guangdong published rulings for the first three quarters in 2016, the first three violations mentioned above: (1) failure to pay employee remuneration, (2) overtime law violations and (3) using child labor have been the most common illegal practices. Labor authorities are cracking down particularly hard on employer failure to pay employee remuneration.

What is considered a “substantial” failure to pay? If you owe 10 employees wages, you will no doubt be penalized and your violation will be made public. If you owe one employee a substantial amount (could be as low as 20,000 RMB), you may be listed as well. In other words, the threshold is not terribly high, especially for foreign companies whose employee wages tend to be higher. And since the labor authorities have gobs of discretion in deciding whom to name and shame, we are expecting foreign companies to get less slack. Egregious violations subject employer companies and the person-in-charge to criminal liabilities. Failing to pay substantial employee remuneration is a crime and will be prosecuted. This is not something you want to get wrong.

So if you employ anyone in China, now is the time for you to get compliant. In tomorrow’s post, I will set out our method for accomplishing that.

Editor’s Note: Whenever we write something related to ensuring compliance with China’s employment laws, companies with no legal entity in China contact us “to get into compliance.” If you have “employees” in China but no company in China, your problems go way beyond what is written above. For how to handle that sort of situation, you should check out Doing Business in China with Deportation or Worse Hanging Over Your Head and follow and read the links in that post. Now!

China contract lawyersIn my previous post in this series (here), I described the five basic attitudes Chinese companies have regarding advanced equipment being sold into China. Given these attitudes, what should a foreign seller do? In this part 2 post I set out two of five tactics high value equipment sellers should follow when selling advanced (and therefore expensive) equipment into China. In part 3, I will wrap it up with the remaining three tactics.

1. Do not discount. The first mistake most Western companies make when selling their high end equipment to China is to discount its price. The usual explanation my clients give me for doing this is that “we will discount the first equipment sale and then make up for that discount on future sales.” Wrong.

If you offer a discount you are simply confirming the China side’s basic assumption that your price is too high and you will virtually never get the opportunity to make up for the discount. The Chinese side will do one of two things. Some buyers (especially state owned enterprises or SOEs) will treat the initial discounted items as “samples” they will distribute to other enterprises to be cloned in China. For other buyers, the discounted price will treated as a new floor price for the product. If additional purchases are discussed, the Chinese company will then ask for an additional discount against your already discounted price.

It is therefore critical you hold the line on price. You may perhaps offer a very small quantity discount for purchases of multiple units. You may even offer a small “customer loyalty” discount for return purchases. But never offer a major discount for the initial purchase. Hold the line and explain that your price is both fair and the same price you offer to everyone in the world, on the same terms. What reason is there to change this policy for China?

2. Get paid before you deliver. For companies that are successful in selling to China, this is the golden rule. There really is no alternative. In many countries, issues related to payment can be resolved through the use of carefully drafted letters of credit. Chinese buyers, however, will only use Chinese banks for their letters of credit and those banks will always favor their Chinese buyer customers, so the letter of credit approach will not work for China.

For Chinese companies planning to clone your equipment in China, paying you by installments fits perfectly into their plan. The standard approach works as follows. Set up a system with five installment payments. The equipment will be delivered and installed in stages, in accordance with the installments. Then, the Chinese company will delay payment from the very start and then use the payment delay (which it will usually blame on China’s capital controls or some tax issue) to push the foreign side to deliver more than is required for each installment. The Chinese company will then reluctantly make a payment or two, all the while extracting equipment, training and know-how. When the Chinese side thinks it has gained  “enough” from what you have already provided it, the payments stop. The common standard is to make two of five payments in exchange for 50% of the product and expertise. Our China lawyers warn our clients about this all the time and yet it just keeps happening.

Other Chinese companies will use installment payments to force you to discount. The Chinese side will negotiate for a series of installment payments with a major final installment to be paid after installation and approval by the Chinese side. This approach virtually never works well for the foreign seller as Chinese companies are expert at finding problems with the equipment. The Chinese side will raise these problems as excuses for continual payment delays and then use their own delays to seek an after the fact discount in price from you, while holding the installment payments as hostage to achieve this goal.

If the Chinese company is unable to secure its desired discount from you during the basic installment period, it simply will not make the final payment, achieving a 10% to 15% discount by that single refusal to pay. If the foreign side threatens to sue for that final payment, the Chinese side will trot out a list of problems with the product and its installation — normally problems the Chinese company itself caused. However, this will still be enough to convince the foreign side seller that it will need to mount a long and expensive legal battle to get that final payment and that doing so probably will not make sense.

It is important to note that these tactics by Chinese companies are not unusual. Your price is too high, so they do not see themselves as acting unethically; they are just leveling the playing field. I have spent about half of my life in China and I have heard this reasoning about once a month while there.

China lawyersDoes the Chinese company with which you are doing a deal have a United States subsidiary? Does this mere fact make you feel better about doing a deal with its China parent company? Why? Do you not realize that it is likely to be legally irrelevant?

The always excellent, always informative, Hague Law Blog (by Aaron Lukken) wrote about this in the context of service of process in its post, You can’t simply serve a U.S. subsidiary. Aaron starts out by discussing how you need a compelling reason to “pierce the corporate veil” of a subsidiary company to each through and assert claims against its corporate parent since “the whole purpose of a corporation is to be a separate entity, a separate being from its owners, shielding the owners from liability if they didn’t have a part in wrongdoing.”

A couple years ago I was retained as an expert on corporate veil piercing for a case in Korea. As part of my work on that case, I researched the current state of corporate veil piercing and since that time I’ve probably stated something like the following to fellow lawyers at least a dozen times: “You know how difficult it is to pierce a corporate veil, well it’s even more difficult than you think. It seems that courts are now pretty much uniformly of the view that everyone now understands that Limited Liability companies and corporations protect the owners of those entities and corporate veil piercing is now nearly impossible unless there has been real fraud somewhere along the way.” Or to put it in non-legal terms, it ain’t gonna happen.

And yet again and again really smart in-house lawyers seem to ignore this when doing deals with big Chinese companies with U.S. subsidiaries. I cannot even count the times where such a lawyer has told me that they are not terribly worried about being able to pursue the big Chinese company on the other side of their deal because “we can always go after them here in the United States.” Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Unless the U.S. subsidiary is a party to the contract or a guarantor on the contract, to go after that subsidiary you need to be able to pierce the corporate veil and that ain’t gonna happen. When I tell them this, they then talk about how they still can seize the Chinese companies ownership interest in that U.S. subsidiary as if that is no big deal. But the problem is that is a really big deal and any Chinese company worth its salt has structured its ownership of its U.S. subsidiary through various levels of Hong Kong and Cayman Island and Virgin Island companies. So yes, if you are willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars investigating the corporate trail and engaging in discovery on just this one issue, you might succeed. But really?

Our China lawyers see the result of this thinking with contracts between American and Chinese companies that call for disputes to be resolved in a U.S. court. At least once a month, one of our China attorneys will get a call or an email from a U.S. lawyer seeking our help in taking a U.S. judgment (usually a default judgment) to China to enforce. The thinking of the U.S. lawyer is that all we need do is go to a China court and ask it to convert the U.S. judgment into a Chinese judgment and then send out the Chinese equivalent of a sheriff to the Chinese company and start seizing its assets until it pays. As we have so often written, this will not work:

After we tell the American lawyers how difficult it is to collect on a U.S. judgment against a Chinese company (note that I say difficult and not impossible — it is possible to employ “other methods” to collect on such a judgment), they will sometimes explain that is okay because they can still go after the U.S. subsidiary of the Chinese company with which they have the contract. But as stated above, that is expensive and difficult and may or may not lead to a good result.

Aaron’s post focuses on how service of process on a foreign company’s U.S. subsidiary does not constitute service on the parent company and he uses Chrysler Motors as an example:

Take Chrysler, for example. When you sue Chrysler over a defective Jeep, you’re pretty solid in just serving the Michigan outfit. But if you allege liability on the part of the parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, N.V. (which we’ll just call FCA here– and I don’t mean the Fellowship of Christian Athletes), serving in Michigan ain’t gonna cut the mustard. You have to go abroad to get FCA on the hook. You can’t just hit Chrysler and assume that FCA is in the case, too.

The corporate veil doesn’t get pierced just because it hangs overseas.

Which means that if you want to serve Chrysler Automobiles N.V. you must do so in the Netherlands, where it is based. Again, it’s because the subsidiary is not the equivalent of the parent and vice-versa and as much as you may wish it otherwise, it ain’t. The same holds true for your China contract.

 

China employer social insuranceChinese law mandates employers provide their employees certain mandatory benefits, including social insurance. China has five types of social insurance: pension, medical, unemployment, maternity and work-related injury insurance. The specific types of social insurance employers must provide and their contribution formulas vary depending on the employer’s location. Many foreign employers in China do not realize that failing to make full payments on required social insurance gives their employees the legal right to unilaterally terminate the employment agreement without providing any prior notice and then turn around and sue the employer for damages.

Just to make things more complicated for China’s employers, China has several forms of social insurance violations. You obviously violate the law if you don’t pay any social insurance at all, but the violations by foreign employers in China I most commonly see are more subtle and complicated than that. We see violations when employers fail to pay social insurance for the entire term of employment. This violation often happens when the employer thinks it need not pay social insurance during an employee’s probation period. We also see violations involving employers failing to pay for all five types of social insurance. And with rising wages in China, we have lately been seeing a rash of employer problems arising from paying social insurance based on a lower salary than is actually being paid, either because the employer failed to update the salary amount or because it intentionally reported a lower salary so as to reduce its employer contribution. These are the sorts of things we constantly look out for in our HR audits.

Employees may consent to the employer claiming a lower salary but that is irrelevant once caught or even once reported by the employee who consented. In a fairly recent case out of Jiangsu Province, the court reinstated the employer’s obligation to pay for all required types of social insurances at full rates the entire time. I am simplifying the facts for this post, but basically the employee’s monthly salary was higher than 7000 RMB, and the employer only contributed social insurance as though the salary had been 2200 RMB. The employee terminated the employment relationship and sued the employer for severance, arguing that he had been forced to leave his job because the employer failed to pay mandatory social insurance. The case went from labor arbitration, to trial, to appeal and then the employer petitioned for re-consideration by the Jiangsu Province High People’s Court. The employer lost every single step of the way (which really should have been no surprise to any experienced China employment lawyer, sorry!) and was required — among other things — to pay the employee for statutory severance.

Each step of the litigation process, the employer made the following three (futile) arguments. One, the employee never objected to the arrangement of the employer misstating the employee’s salary and therefore underpaid the employee’s social insurance. Two, because the employee never voiced any objection to the social insurance payment arrangement, the parties essentially agreed on a different base for social insurance payments. Three, the employer’s failure to contribute the full amount of social insurance was not the same thing as failing to make any contributions at all, so the employee was not entitled to statutory severance. The Jiangsu Province High People’s Court rejected all arguments and explicitly (and rightly) stated that the laws on social insurance are clear and the employer’s failure to contribute the full amounts based on the employee’s actual wages entitled the employee to terminate the employment contract and receive statutory severance pay from his employer.

To reiterate what is becoming a fairly regular theme of my China employment law posts, most China employment laws cannot be contracted away and an employee’s written consent does not change that. An employee’s written acknowledgement that he or she specifically asked for a particular employment arrangement also does not change that.

As a foreign company doing business in China, you are under a microscope and you will be treated differently than domestic Chinese companies. This means that you are both more likely to get caught on employer violations and more likely to get called out and treated harshly when caught. In our experience, if the labor authorities are not pursuing you for non-compliance, your employees almost certainly will either before or certainly after they leave. This brings me to another point. If your employee tells you she is leaving her employment and alleges she has been forced to quit because of employer wrongdoing (or even just provides inconsistent stories about why she is leaving), you should immediately work on resolving those problems (which is exactly what they are) before she takes you to court.

 

Terminating a China-based employeeChina employment law. China employment lawyer. is never easy, but unilateral termination is possible without having to pay severance when the terminated employee has committed a serious breach of the employer rules and regulations (aka employee handbook). For your termination to work, you as the employer need a set of rules and regulations that include a legally enforceable provision on which you can rely. “Enforceable” generally means a reasonable provision that does not violate any Chinese laws.

Let’s take absenteeism as an example. This is a fairly straightforward misconduct and there is nothing in the law prohibiting an employer from disciplining an employee for absenteeism. The question is whether your company rule is reasonable. Suppose your Rules and Regulations provide for immediate termination of any employee absent from work for half a day without good reason. Will such a provision be upheld as enforceable simply because it doesn’t violate any laws? Almost certainly not. As with almost everything regarding China’s employment laws, the answer could depend on the employer’s locale. But most China labor boards and courts will refuse to enforce this provision as too harsh. What about three days of absences without good reason? Would that be enough to allow immediate termination? Probably yes, but we still need to check the local rules and check in with the local labor authorities to confirm local practices. The line between what is considered harsh and what is not is often fuzzy, so it is important the termination provisions in your handbook be both clear and enforceable.

But what if you do not even have a set of Rules and Regulations or your Rules and Regulations are silent on absenteeism and you want to terminate an employee who has been absent from work for 3 consecutive days without any justification? Can you discipline or terminate that employee without having to pay any severance? Again, it will depend on where you are, but in most places, the answer is no. If your Rules and Regulations do not list out the misconduct you want to use as your basis for an employee’s termination, you typically cannot terminate the employee on that basis. This is yet another reason why having a set of Rules and Regulations is so important and why it should be an evolving document. If you are finding your employees engaging in misconduct not addressed in your Rules and Regulations, you should update it to add provisions that address that misconduct.

Speaking of how China’s employment laws can vary so much depending on the locale, Shanghai is an employer-favorable outlier to much of the above. In Shanghai an employer that can show its employee acted in bad faith and thus violated his or her basic duties as an employee can usually terminate an employee without justification based on a particular provision in its Rules and Regulations. Despite this Shanghai difference, you still will be on firmer ground for an employee termination that can be justified by a provision in your Employer Rules and Regulations.

China sales agreement China lawyersWith China getting more expensive and more difficult for foreign companies, and with many foreign companies choosing to leave China rather than risk getting caught for operating there illegally, our China lawyers have been seeing an uptick in companies looking to sell their products into China without having their own company in China. Some of these companies are looking at joint ventures, which have their own peculiar complications. Most are looking at either selling their products into China from their home country or via distribution relationships. See Distributing Your Product in China: The Legal Basics. Still others are looking to go the reseller or the licensing route.

For reasons still unknown to us, we have lately been seeing an increase in foreign companies (mostly North American) looking to sell their products into China via sales agency relationships.

Sales agency is usually defined roughly as a “contractual arrangement under which an agent acquires the right to negotiate the sale of a principal’s goods or services, usually in exchange for a commission or fee computed as a percentage of sales generated.” This relationship may be — but need not be — an exclusive one. Under a sales agency relationship the sales proceeds go from the buyer of the product or services directly to the company that makes the product or provides the services. In other words, the money would need to leave China and go to the foreign company and the foreign company then, in turn, kicks back some of that money as a commission to its sales agent or the buyer segregates out a separate payment to the China seller. Even with all of China’s tightening of capital flows and the increased difficulties in getting money out of China, it is still extremely rare for the sale of a product worth less than say $250,000 million to have any such issues.

Sales agency relationships are usually less complicated than a distribution relationship because so much more of the expenses are assumed to rest with the principal and are not pushed off on the sales agent. With the increase in companies seeking such relationships, we developed the following initial questions to get to the heart of the matter and to allow us to figure out the basics of where we need to go in drafting a China-centric sales agency contract for our clients. I list out these questions below as they should prove a good starting point to those who may be looking at getting their product (or even their services) into China via a sales agency deal.

1. Please provide the name, address, and all other contact information you have on the Chinese company that will be the seller of your product.

2. Who buy the product? Wholesalers? Retailers? End users? Online sellers (Taobao, Tmall, JD.com, Amazon)? All or some of the above?

3. What will be the terms of the sales agreement between the purchasers of the product and the seller? In particular, how will you deal with warranty and after sales service for the items sold? Will the sales agent be involved in this process?

4. How will the sales agent commission be calculated? When and how will the commission be paid? When the customer is identified? When the sale closes? Payment to the sales agent from the buyer as part of the sales price payment? Payment from you a certain number of days after the sale? Payment every month, aggregating all sales from that month? Every quarter? Payment to the sales agent’s bank account in China? Payment in RMB? Payment in some other currency to an off-shore bank account?

5. What is the territory of each sales agent? Will that territory be exclusive? Will sales agents be permitted to sell into other territories? Normally, “territory” is a geographic region, like Shandong Province or Shanghai. However, territory can also be based on the type of ultimate customer: retailers, wholesalers, online sellers, private citizens. Territory can also be based on the specific products the agent is authorized to represent. Conflicts on territory are common in China, so it is important that our contract be clear on this issue.

7. For each specific sales agent, what will be the term of their agency agreement? Note that many agents will insist that IF they meet a certain sales target, the term of their agreement will be automatically extended. In some agency agreements, the penalty for not meeting the sales target is not termination of the agreement, but rather the termination of exclusive rights.

8. How will you arrange for contact with the customers? Will the sales agent handle all communication with the customer or will the sales agent “turn over” the customer to your team at a certain point in the process?

9. How will you handle the cost of promoting the product? In particular, will you provide any support to the sales agent? That is, will you provide a annual marketing support payment? Will you provide written or online marketing materials? Will you provide training and support?

10. What rights will the sales agent have to use your company name, your brand name, and your logo?

11. How will you determine the specific products a sales agent is authorized to represent? Will it be your entire line of products, or will certain agents be restricted to certain products?

12. How will you determine the sales price of your products? Will the sales agents work from a catalogue provided by you, or will you have a specific price list for each agent for their specific products.

13. Will your company be making any direct sales to Chinese customers, or will you make your sales exclusively through your sales agents?