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‘Red Flags’ to Watch Out for When Working in China

Posted 2014-6-3

You’ve made the bold move and arrived in China. You apply for several jobs online and soon enough, an offer is sent your way. Seduced by the prospect of building a career in China and gaining a legal work visa, you eagerly accept. However, as you begin the painstaking process of switching to a work visa, you realise you may have been too hasty: the company suddenly confesses its inability to process to your visa. This situation is surprisingly common in China and as highlighted in this article, there are several ‘red flags’ to look out for when browsing through job adverts and negotiating with your future employer.


Visa deceptions

There are at least three companies I know of that can’t give the correct visas to foreigners in Hangzhou. The first one has its headquarters in Beijing and this is its only registered office. This famous, popular English language training school for adults has many branches across China; many people know of it. What most people don’t know is that since it only has one registered office, the visas it provides are only valid at their Beijing branch. If a school wants to trade legally, it must register each branch separately which is at a considerable cost to the company. So they cut corners. They register one branch, open more, and hire foreigners under the misconception that they can provide valid working (Z) visas. Don’t get me wrong, they can: but only at the registered branch. Ergo, as soon as you leave the province after obtaining the visa to then work in another branch, your visa is no longer valid and so effectively illegal.

The second school I know of is in the same vein as the first: it has its headquarters registered in Shanghai and so the visas it provides are valid only at the Shanghai branch of the school. As soon as you leave Shanghai, they are invalid.

The third school is through personal experience. I got a job there. Unbeknown to me at the time, companies are only allowed to hire foreigners if they have been trading for at least two years and they must prove that they have 1 million RMB in assets. The company I signed with had been trading for nine months and the problems arose as soon as I gave them my documents to process in order to renew my working visa. It soon became apparent that they had hired me illegally, were unable to process the paperwork and so I left. The above examples are just some of the legal issues foreigners encounter during their work life in China.

Questions you should clarify with an employer

1) Can you get me a working (Z) visa?
If the answer to this is anything other than an outright ‘yes’ then run. As fast as possible in the opposite direction! Any other visa type whilst working here is illegal in China. If you are residing here – or thinking of – and you have a job, then your employer is legally bound to provide the correct documents for you. If they make excuses, say it’s easier to process other visa types, or offer to get you a business (F), student (X) or tourist (L) visa, they are not a legitimate company. Under no circumstances should you consider working for them. The wider implications of this also means that as an employee you have no recourse should things go wrong. Foreigners have minimal ability to rectify any situations here on the mainland anyway, but without the correct visa type you have no leverage whatsoever. 

2) How long have you been trading?
A cursory internet search will no doubt answer this question, but if you would like further information then ask them outright. As mentioned above, if they have been open for less than two years they are not allowed to legally hire foreigners in any capacity.

3) How is the salary made up?
Is the amount offered in the advertisement the same as take-home pay? This means, are you going to be taxed? Tax ranges anywhere from a couple of hundred RMB to more than a thousand, depending on the salary and the tax bracket you’re in. You should also enquire as to whether the salary includes housing allowance or whether this is this given separately as an additional payment?

4) Holidays and days off
Do you receive any vacation days? If so, what and when are they? Are you entitled to take personal affairs leave or sick leave and is this paid? Most Chinese schools offer the statutory Chinese holidays to all of their employees. Anything more than this is usually not included and as such you risk taking any extra days unpaid. The only way to guarantee extra days off is to negotiate them into your contract. As for days off, when are they? Will you be entitled to one or two? Are they split or together? These are all small questions but become hugely important if you sign a contract and haven’t nailed down the specifics beforehand. The smallest things tend to become the most difficult to rectify at a later date if it’s not in black and white.

Typical advertisement

Let’s take this advertisement for a school in Hangzhou and read between the lines of what it is offering:

“Salary and Benefits for Full-time Teachers: 
1. Monthly salary: 9000 RMB- 20000 RMB salary is commensurate with qualifications, with the ability to teach more periods for a higher salary. 
2. Classes are usually 30-45 min.
3. Low office hours.
4. Sponsor Working Visa.”

The first huge red flag is the salary range: 9,000-20,000 RMB. This is highly unlikely given that there are no other schools in Hangzhou that pay 20,000 RMB a month. The only way a salary that high would be legitimate is if it were being advertised in one of the more expensive cities to live such as Beijing or Shanghai where salary is relative to living costs. However, even then this is an abnormally high amount. If this salary were indeed true, you should expect to be working unsociable hours, doing lots of preparation, taking VIP classes, participating in extra-curricular activities – basically justifying the high salary that they are paying you. There’s no such thing as a free lunch!  

The second red flag is the class time. Most classes are 50-55 minutes long. Anything shorter than this are normally counted as two periods being taught back-to-back. So for example, if the class is 40 or 45 minutes long, expect to be teaching 90 minutes with a five minute break in between. Is that acceptable to you? It doesn’t state this in the advertisement but effectively the class is 45 minutes long, it would more than likely have a five minute break and then continue for a further 45 minutes. So it’s not an outright lie, but it is bending the truth somewhat.

Low office hours: does this mean no office hours? One a day? Fixed schedule times? Or can you do your preparation time at home? The office hours expected varies from company to company but you should make sure that the requirements of these are crystal clear before signing your life away. Some schools are happy that you arrive in time for your scheduled teaching hours, do your job and then leave. However, some expect a required number of office hours in order to prepare for your classes. These are mandatory and are included in your working week.

These days we are seeing a dip in the salaries being negotiated for foreigners, especially at foreign language training schools.  In part this is down to the influx of foreign workers – there are more foreigners available to do the job and so schools can lower the salary expectations knowing that they can hire somebody who will accept the lower wage.

Another reason is the high number of non-native English speakers who are being recruited to teach English. Often these applicants are from European countries and “look the part”, but the schools use the excuse that they aren’t native speakers to pay them a lower salary. They then set a precedent by offering a lower wage which filters out across the board meaning the rest of the schools in the locale follow suit. Schools aren’t bothered about teachers’ credentials as much as how they fit in and boost their image.

Ultimately, when it comes to applying for a job in China go with your gut instinct if something doesn’t sound right. If you are continually being fobbed off or the goalposts keep moving in regard to contract terms and conditions, it’s a good bet that this is only the beginning. If things aren’t going smoothly from the off, don’t expect that they will get better once you’re an employee – they won’t. There are plenty of forums and helpful expats with sound knowledge of the local area that you’re applying to and who will answer any queries you may have about a potential employer: schools with bad reputations travel quickly amongst foreigners. Make sure you do your homework and start off on the right foot to land that dream job that you’ve always been waiting for.

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