Teaching English in China

If you are thinking about taking a job teaching English in China, my strong advice to you is DON’T DO IT. Just don’t. Look for such a job in Vietnam or Thailand or Japan or Spain or the Czech Republic or really just about anywhere else in the world. I say this because teaching English in China has become that corrupt, that horrible, that exploitive, and that risky.

Let me explain….

Our international lawyers have always gotten a steady stream of emails from English teachers in foreign countries who are in trouble or not getting paid. Though these matters are invariably too small for us (or just not the sort of work we handle), we do want to help to the extent we can. That “help” usually consists of an email providing “fly-by” legal or career help or even emotional support. We view helping these teachers as a bit of a public service.

In International Education: The Emails We Get, we explained how our international lawyers have inadvertently found themselves on the front lines with this, even though we have never made a single cent from representing an English teacher anywhere in the world.

A couple years ago we wrote a four part series on establishing an international school in China. In part 1, Establishing International Schools in China: The Basics, we discussed the complications foreign parties typically see when trying to start a school in China. In part 2, Establishing International Schools in China: A Deeper Dive, we focused on what it takes to start a School for the Children of Foreign Workers. In part 3, Establishing International Schools in China: A Deeper Dive (Continued), we discussed Sino-Foreign Cooperative Schools and Chinese Private Schools. In this, my last post in this series, I look at future trends for international schools in China. In Part 4, Establishing International Schools in China – Future Trends, we wrote about some of the distinctive issues foreign schools face in China. We also sometimes write about the legal issues stemming from teaching overseas. See e.g., Teaching English In China: Be Careful.

Many of our lawyers and staff attended international schools or are sons or daughters of teachers or professors. I spent my junior year of high school at Robert College in Istanbul, a year studying Spanish at LAE Madrid, and 8 months studying French at the Institut de Touraine. All three are amazing schools and these were some of the best years of my life. My father taught English Literature at a liberal arts college for 36 years. Our law firm has a long history of representing universities and international schools on their international legal work, ranging from helping them set up in foreign countries to licensing technology they’ve developed to foreign companies.

Our writings and our legal work and our various international school connections mean we get 10-20 emails every month from people teaching around the world, roughly be divided into the following four categories:

  1. Visa issues.
  2. Employment contract issues.
  3. Medical and landlord issues.
  4. Starting a school issues.

We went on to talk about how our international lawyers try to do their best to give responses that contain actionable advice, based on the limited time and information we have and the below reflects how we typically handle the four most common categories of foreign teacher emails.

1. Visa Issues. We almost always have to punt on visa issues because our immigration law expertise is mostly limited to business immigration to the United States, with a smattering of additional knowledge gleaned from the transactional work we do in Asia and in Europe. Since none of us have deep immigration law knowledge relevant for foreign teachers our response is usually to urge them to seek out a local immigration lawyer for assistance. I know from my own experience in other countries that there is a veritable ton of bad and outdated immigration law information on the internet and an hour or two with a lawyer who actually knows this area of law can be invaluable. This is pretty much true of all aspects of international law. See China Law Online: It’s All Wrong.

2. Employment contract issues . The typical email we get will say something like “I am a teacher in China and I have been fired for taking a day off because my sister came to visit. Can my school do this?” Our response to this sort of email will usually be something like the following — changed quite a bit for brevity and for emphasis:

I have no idea whether your school can or cannot and for us to know we would first need to make sure we do not represent the school at which you worked (because if we did, we could not represent you) and then we would need to read your contract and then compare that as against the local laws and the province’s laws and China’s laws and then maybe speak with the local employment authorities as well. If it does turn out that the school illegally terminated you we would then need to figure out exactly what we can do about that. Likely that would be registering a complaint with the appropriate Chinese governmental body and using that to try to pressure your employer to take you back, which is very unlikely to happen. When you are not taken back we would then need to look into suing the school. If we did sue the school and you won, we might get an order saying the school needs to take you back and we might get some really small amount in damages. Then again we might also lose. Your school may or may not abide by the order.

The problem with the above is that at some point your China visa may be revoked and you will need to leave China. And win or lose, you challenging this school may lead to you never getting a job in China again and going through the above will be time consuming and expensive.

3. Medical and landlord issues. These emails often come down to money. “The hospital wants $400” or my “landlord wants to raise rent by $100 a month.” As a father, my responses to these are usually nine parts paternalistic, one part legal.

4. Starting a school issues. The typical email will come from someone who has been teaching English in China or in Vietnam or in Poland or wherever and they now want to know what it will take “to open a school for foreign students in X city in Y country.” We then explain the basics of what setting up a school will require and the estimated costs.

Since relations between China and the West (especially the English speaking West) started going into straight line decline about a year ago, the number of these emails have increased exponentially and the problems have shifted. The problems we are seeing these days generally fit into the following three categories:

1. English teacher in jail for a fight or for drug possession. Our advice is to have someone close to them reach out to their country’s embassy and work with the embassy in securing a good local criminal lawyer. We urge them to act quickly and, if at all possible, secure financial support from their parents. We urge them not to publicize their case unless and until their retained lawyer suggests that be done, which is rare.

3. Visa issues.  We usually suggest the teacher work with their school to try to solve these problems (if they trust/like their school) and/or get a good local immigration lawyer/visa specialist to assist. Occasionally we suggest the teacher leave the country.

4. Non-payment or underpayment. These usually involve the school perpetually underpaying, the school being late with payment, the school not paying promised bonuses, not paying for extra hours, not paying the final month’s paycheck under the contract or not reimbursing or paying for the flight home (as per the contract). Our advice is usually to let it go because finding and hiring and paying for a lawyer will likely be difficult and the teacher (just as with the work related problems mentioned above) may well be better off long-term by not making waves.

Pretty routine stuff right? Yes and no and it is the “no” part that is causing me to write this post. The no part is that in the last three months these issues have gone into warp speed. Speaking just for myself, the number of these emails has gone from one or two a month to four to five a day. I have seen at least a ten-fold increase in prison, visa and payment problems for teachers from China (and nowhere else in the world). It has gotten relentless to the point of being depressing. If the emails we are relentlessly receiving are any indication (and they have to be), the following is happening in China in what feels like every minute:

  1. Teachers are being drug tested using their hair samples. Many are testing for cannabis and being jailed for 30 days or more and then being deported. This is happening to newly arrived teachers who insist they did not consume any cannabis since arriving in China. Listen up everybody, cannabis can show up in hair testings up to (and even sometimes beyond) 90 days after you have consumed it. So if you are going to be teaching in China and you do not want to spend time in jail and get deported, please, please, please go at least four months without consuming ANY cannabis before you go there and please, please, please do not consume any cannabis while there. None. Zero. Zilch. 没有. Aucun. Keiner.  PLEASE. Invariably, the schools use this as a reason not to pay the teacher whatever is owed.
  2. Teachers are being checked (or reported on) for having an improper visa for China. The teachers are then being tossed in jail and then deported or just deported straight away. Invariably, the schools use this as a reason not to pay the teacher whatever is owed. It appears to have become very common (as a cost cutting measure) for schools to have teachers come to China and start their teaching on tourist visas, all the while claiming this is perfectly legal — it isn’t. The teachers believe this until the day they are arrested. Near as I can tell, the schools rarely if ever get in any real trouble for this but the teachers sure do.
  3. Teachers are not getting paid. Just this morning I got an email from one teacher who say that she and another 75+ teachers in her city (from various different schools) have not gotten paid for months. And another email mentioning nine teachers in another city who also have not been paid.  Add to this the pretty much daily emails I get from teachers who do not get their last paycheck or the airfare reimbursements or the bonuses they were promised and it has become clear that it is open season right now against foreign teachers in China. The schools clearly believe they can blow off paying their teachers with impunity because they are right. When teachers ask me what they should do about getting paid my response is usually to say that they can retain and pay a local Chinese attorney to try to get paid, but the odds of a foreign teacher prevailing on such a claim are not good and pushing at all hard to get paid can have all sorts of negative ramifications. Schools will pull teacher’s work visas or refuse to assist in moving it to a new employer. They may also seek to have you deported so they can be sure to avoid having to pay wages owed and it is not uncommon for schools to make up claims about their teachers and to threaten to “make sure they will never work in China again.” You therefore need to think long and hard about getting bogged down in these sorts of disputes and even how they might harm your long term career prospects.

From beginning to end, the game is rigged against English teachers in China. The China employment relationship is complicated and if done wrong, employees can and do end up in jail. The only relevant portion of a China employment contract is the Chinese portion and so teachers who do not speak Chinese have no clue what their employment contracts say and no clue even whether the English language portion of that contract accurately translates the Chinese portion — I can tell you right now that the odds are about 100 to 1 that it does not. And even if you are able to read the Chinese portion, unless you have a comprehensive knowledge of China’s employment laws in the specific locale in which you are working. Our China employment lawyers consistently represent high-level China employees in their employment contract negotiations but English teachers simply cannot afford such assistance. This makes them incredibly vulnerable from day one and their employers know this and they don’t hesitate to take advantage of it.

I have reached the conclusion that the best thing an English teacher can to do protect themselves from the sorts of things mentioned above is not to take a teaching job in China in the first place. Go elsewhere. And if you are teaching in China now, leave now or just resign yourself to your fate. I wish I could give better advice than this but I cannot. Sorry.

So how is the above relevant for non-teachers. I’ll tell you. The truth is that many Chinese companies prefer to hire foreigners illegally to legally because doing so can save them a ton of money and is usually pretty low risk — at least for them. So what I describe above regarding teachers is not as uncommon as you would think in other industries. The Global Times article, The detention of two Irish women who were working side jobs at an unlicensed school in Beijing shines a spotlight on the illegal English education market in China is about  two teachers from Ireland who were detained in prison for more than a week for working illegally in China. Both these teachers had visas that allowed them to work full-time in China, but only with their one employer who secured these visas for them. These two teachers had taken lucrative part-time teaching jobs on the side and it was those jobs that got them arrested.

The Global Times article says the big takeaway from what happened to these two teachers is that “employers have no qualms about hiring foreigners illegally” and “when the illegality is discovered, it is the foreign worker who gets the blame.” It then discusses the following “experiment”:

The article talks about someone who “ran an experiment” by applying for every English language teaching job listed in Beijing Magazine and clearly stating he could not qualify for a work visa. Only one out of the twenty potential employers declined his application! In other words, 19 out of 20 were happy to have this foreigner work for them illegally. The article notes that under  China’s immigration law, foreigners who work illegally in China can be fined 5,000 to 20,000 yuan and detained for between 5-15 days and then deported. “A lot of the burden and blame falls” on the employee who works illegally in China and therefore, as the US Embassy website makes clear, “it is up to each individual to evaluate potential employers before signing a contract.”

And the getting fooled by the English portion of the employment contract happens in all industries too. We discussed this in Dual Language China Contracts: Don’t Get Fooled!

Can’t believe this is still happening, but it does, and in numbers that would likely surprise many people. The “this” to which I am referring is foreign companies signing dual language contracts without knowing exactly what the Chinese language portion of their contract says. This is really risky dangerous and below I explain why.

Many dual language Chinese-English contracts are silent on which language controls. For some unknown reason, foreign companies far too often just assume that the English language portion controls or they just assume that it does not matter because the meaning of both the English and the Chinese portions is exactly the same. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

What language controls when you have a dual-language contract?  If both languages say the same one language controls, that one language will control. If both the English language and the Chinese language portions say the Chinese language portion controls, the Chinese language portion will control. Similarly, if both the Chinese language and the English language portions say the English language portion controls, the English language portion will control. These are the easy and safe examples.

It is everything else that so often cause problems for American and European and Australian companies in  trouble.

If both your English language and your Chinese language portions are silent as to which portion controls, the Chinese language portion will control in Chinese courts and in China arbitrations. In real life this means that if the English language portion of your joint venture contract says that you get 10 percent of the joint venture’s revenue  but the Chinese portion says you get 10 percent of the profits (which will of course be way less than revenues) you will have no legal basis for claiming anything more than 10 percent of the profits. Not surprisingly it is joint venture contracts and licensing agreements where our China lawyers most often see this sort of meaningful dichotomy between the English and the Chinese portions of the contract.

Of the hundreds of dual language contracts proposed by Chinese companies and reviewed by one of my firm’s China attorneys, we’ve never seen a single one where the Chinese portion was less favorable to the Chinese company than the English portion. But we’ve seen plenty where the Chinese portion is better or much better for the Chinese company than the English portion. Chinese companies love using a contract with an English portion that is more favorable to the foreign company than the Chinese portion and then relying on the English speaking company to assume that the English language portion will control.

But what if the English language portion explicitly states that it will control? This works right? Not necessarily. If the Chinese language portion also explicitly states that it will control, the Chinese language portion will control under Chinese law. If the Chinese language portion is silent or says that the English language portion controls, the English language portion will control.

As we noted in China Contracts: Make Them Enforceable Or Don’t Bother, it usually makes sense to draft contracts with Chinese companies in Chinese with an English language translation. But this also requires that if that contract is going to be enforced in China (as should usually be the case), you absolutely positively need to be certain that you know exactly what the Chinese language portion of that contract actually says. No matter what the English language portion of your contract says, it behooves you to know exactly what the Chinese language portion says as well.

In other words, if you are not truly able to read and understand Chinese, you probably do not know what your contact says. And if it is an employment contract that you do not fully understand, you could be putting yourself at serious risk.

I do not believe all schools in China cheat or mistreat their teachers, or even that a majority do. But I am convinced that so many schools do and so few English teachers who choose to go to China have the resources or the ability to figure out which is which or to be able to navigate the visa and contract minefields, that the odds of their having problems are just too high to warrant the trip. Conversely I do not believe that all the schools in Vietnam or Thailand or the Czech Republic or Japan or Spain are guaranteed not to engage in similar behavior, but I do believe that the odds of a problem in those countries are a whole lot less than in China and that the environment for you outside of school will likely be better as well.

Living and working and doing business in China is way more legally complicated than ten years ago and tolerance of foreigners in China (particularly for Americans) is way down. This means that the likelihood of you going astray of Chinese law is considerably higher as well. When you then add in that China’s ability and desire to catch foreign companies and foreigners operating illegally in China is higher now than it has ever been, you can see why it is so critical you make sure that both your company and you are operating in China within the law. If you are not already operating legally, you need to start doing so now and if you cannot, you probably should leave China or not go there at all.  This is the new normal for China. See Want to Keep Your Business in China? Do These Things NOW. 

If you are not able to know whether you are in compliance in China and thus protected, you (and your company) would be better off not being there at all, English teacher or otherwise.

6-21-2019 Update. I ran this post on Linkedin here and that has engendered much interesting discussion. A number of people have noted that government schools in China are a considerably safer bet and I note that I do not recall ever receiving any emails regarding problems with Chinese government school positions. So if you truly are dead set on teaching English in China, you should consider a government job over a private sector one.