Employers in China are presumed to have greater bargaining power than their employees and therefore China’s labor laws tend to provide China employees with substantial protections and China courts typically favor employees in disputes with their employers, especially foreign employers. If you as a foreign employer want to avoid legal problems, you should strive to hew to the employment laws, especially when it comes to drafting your employment contracts.
China employment contracts are not a time to get creative and a recent court case out of Guangdong confirms this. In this case, an employee and a Guangzhou-based employer entered into an employment contract for a fixed term (more on this later). The parties explicitly agreed on a contract damages provision stating that if either party terminates the contract without good cause before the end of the contract term, the breaching party shall pay the other party 200% of the employee’s salary for the remainder of the term. This provision was intended to be effective both ways: it did not just apply to the employer.
The contract was properly executed and the employer eventually terminated the employee before the end of the term — about four years into employment, with about six years remaining on the term. The employee then sued the employer for double damages for unlawful termination and for the contract damages per the employment contract: 200% of salary for the six years remaining on the term. The employer argued that it was entitled to damages because the employee had deceived them in securing his job by falsely claiming to be a foreign expert.
The appellate court ruled that Chinese law prohibits imposing a penalty on employees unless an exception applies, which it rarely does and it did not in this case. The appellate court also upheld the damages provision as applied to the employer and held the employer liable for the contract damages. The court ruled that the damages provision as applied to the employee was illegal whereas that same provision as applied to the employer did not violate any laws. The employer therefore owed the employee 200% of his salary.
In reaching its decision, the court noted that China’s labor laws allow for penalties against employees in only the following two circumstances:
- Pursuant to an education reimbursement agreement, an employer can require its employee reimburse the company for the education expenses if the company pays major expenses for an employee’s employment-related education or training, but the employee quits the company upon completion of the training.
- Pursuant to a non-compete agreement, an employer can require an employee pay a penalty to the company if the employee violates any non-compete terms by, for example, working for a competitor after leaving employment.
Except for the two circumstances above, an employer and an employee may not agree on any provision that requires the employee pay a penalty to the employer.
Bottom line: Chinese laws are strict about when an employer can impose a penalty on an employee and employers typically cannot contract around China employment laws. For these reasons, it rarely makes sense to draft an employment contract with provisions that purport to do otherwise.