Every few weeks one of our China lawyers gets a somewhat frantic email from an English teacher in China and we hate them. We hate them because the English teacher is invariably in some terrible situation and the only way we can help is to spend massive amounts of attorney time on their case, which makes no sense for anyone.

Our typical email comes from an English teacher who has not been paid for three months and then gets fired and whose school refuses to give them the papers necessary for the teacher to move on to another job, unless and until the teacher signs an agreement settling back wages for pennies (and that’s if the teacher is lucky) on the dollar.

The teacher is usually writing to see whether they have “a good case” and to see what they “should do.”

Our response is usually something like the following:

If what you say is true and you performed three months of work and you have not been paid for that, then yes you have a good case, at least legally. But for you to collect on your back wages you will need to hire and probably pay a local attorney to assist you. That attorney will likely write a demand letter to your former employer, demanding it pay your back wages and handle all necessary paperwork to allow you to get another job right away. But the problem with this is that your employer will probably ignore the demand letter and that then means that you will almost certainly need to sue to get any recourse and by the time you sue and get your case heard, you will be sitting in China with no job and no real ability to get a job and I am guessing that is not acceptable to you. So probably the best thing for you would be to do whatever you can to get your ex-employer to complete your paperwork as quickly as possible. I suggest you retain a Chinese lawyer for this as it does not make sense for you to pay American lawyer rates to have our China attorneys work this case for you.

The above situation is by far the most common. The second most common is something along the following lines (this is an amalgamation of various emails we have received):

I am seeking your advice regarding the following situation.

I teach after school English to elementary students in ______[Chinese city].

Yesterday, I was taken to the police station with two coworkers and we were questioned and told that we were working illegally. Though I have a Z visa, it turns out that it is not under the right company name and it says that I do one thing though I am doing another.

I clarified with the police officer that returning to work the next day would be illegal and they confirmed it.

That was followed by my company going and bearing gifts to the police and setting up a system whereby for future inspections the police will call ahead to give the company an opportunity to send its foreign staff away before the police come.

The fine was to be issued today and we were told that we did not have to go to the police, but a letter later in the day said we will go tomorrow. The company will cover the fine.

I had a long drawn out conversation with my bosses where they explained Chinese culture to me and in their words, “there is a legal written law and a social law and the legal law is antiquated and doesn’t work anymore so the social law functions to help people get what they need in society.”

I was assured by my company that it was safe to return to work and that no more trouble would come my way. I would not be surprised if this is true, but the ethics of it is driving me crazy.  Is this really how business is done in China or should I be seeking other employment?

Are there any legal companies in China or is this the norm? And when I look for another job how do I confirm whether my potential future employers are legit or not?  Is there a list of properly legal companies?

Our typical response to this sort of email is something like the following:

Your instincts are right. Your employer is violating Chinese law up and down and though it appears to have so far gotten away with it, that may not continue and if it does not, you might find yourself in a very unpleasant situation. It is almost always a really bad idea to be operating illegally in a foreign country and it seems that is what you are doing.

Bottom Line: Don’t take a job in China without first making sure that both your employer and your job will be on the up and up.

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Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network. 

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.