China employment law: not so simple.
China employment law: not so simple.    (Photo by elPadawan,


Earlier this year, Dan Harris of my firm wrote a Forbes Magazine article (China’s Hourly Work Week: Think Locally) emphasizing how China’s employment laws are so localized. Dan started that article with the following explanation:

I have avoided writing on China employment law because it is so complicated and so localized. My fear has been that any single article can only scratch the surface.

But my firm’s China employment lawyer, Grace Yang, has convinced me that I need to write something on China employment law, if only to highlight how complicated and localized it truly is. With that in mind, I have chosen in this article to focus on something that should be pretty simple: the hourly workweek.

I was reminded of the localization of China’s employment laws multiple times this week. As is the case every December, our China lawyers receive at least quadruple the number of emails relating to China employment issues. This time of year we get a slew of emails from companies doing business in China with questions about their employees and an even greater number of emails from employees with questions about their employment situation, usually involving their wanting to move on to a different employee.

The employees oftentimes want us to give them a quick (and free) answer to their questions, not realizing how complicated they really are.

Here is an example of typical email we receive from employees, with changes made to hide any identifiers:

I am a long time reader of your blog and I now finally need your help. I work for a US WOFE, residence permit, paying taxes, everything is right. Some time ago, a _________ company asked me to collaborate as a volunteer for them one day a week. I am really interested in this company and what they do and so I have the following quick questions for you. Would it be a legal problem if I do this once a week volunteering? Do I need a certificate or document saying that I am working with them because I want to help people and at the same time do ________? Do I need approval from my existing employer to do this extra work? They also tell me that maybe in the future they can give me some money for the collaboration. Again, would that be a problem with my current job?

Our quick answer to this one is similar to how we usually respond to these:

Our short answer is that we don’t know the answers to your questions and we could not even begin to help you unless and until we know who your employer is and run a conflict check on that company. I urge you to search out our blog articles on China employment law because if you do you will understand why we cannot give quick answers here. China’s employment laws and regulations very from city to city and they depend on the specific situation and for us to be able to give you anything resembling actionable advice we would need to know ALL of the facts of your situation, especially the city (or cities) you are discussing, then review the contract you have with your employer and then research the applicable laws and regulations in the relevant city (ies?) and then discuss these laws and regulations with the appropriate governmental authorities. We’d be happy to represent you (if we can), but you will need to decide whether paying legal fees makes sense for you. I suggest you reach out to a local Chinese lawyer for this.

Not sure why, but we by far get more requests (by a wide margin) for answers to “quick” or “simple” questions relating to China labor law than to any other legal issue. I have written this post to try to spread the word that there are very few routine answers when it come to Chinese employment law.


  • neroden

    This is actually a very serious problem and the national government should address. Employment law is something which pretty much everyone encounters and which people who are not lawyers and do not want to be lawyers and cannot afford to hire lawyers encounter CONSTANTLY — every time a person takes a job, or the moment a person hires even a single casual part-time employee.

    It *must* be simple or it is abusive. It’s already dangerously complicated in the US, even though most states have short one-page “cheat sheets” for their local employment laws. Apparently it’s so complicated in China that there is no quick reference.

    That’s no good: it means that basically everyone is forced to ignore the law and work “under the table” because they can’t even find out what the laws are. This already happens a lot in the US, but I’d expect it to be way more common in China if what you write is correct!