Chinese 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.