In China, there are a large number of recruitment agents who are dishonest and engage in illegal activities. Many of them farm out foreign teachers on tourist and business visas to work at various schools on a low salary. The school may have a teaching position open where they are willing to pay 8,000RMB a month, yet the agent will offer the teacher only 5,500RMB a month and pocket the remaining 2,500RMB. Many schools are OK with this arrangement because they are not authorized to directly hire foreign teachers (e.g. if they don’t have a SAFEA license).
Agents typically work in the following manner: The school has an agreement with the agency where the agency is to provide “foreign teacher services”, and the agency in turn has an agreement with the foreign teacher, where the agency pays the teacher a fee for services rendered. It creates a buffer between the school and the foreign teacher, so the school has no direct responsibility for these “troublesome foreigners”. In fairness to the schools, there are quite a few foreign teachers who are genuinely troublesome (they may regularly sleep in and miss class, swear at the administration etc), though this doesn’t excuse schools from completely avoiding responsibility.
The typical agent, just as the schools who use them, is NOT authorized to hire foreign teachers, but this doesn’t stop them from signing contracts with foreign teachers. It’s just that these contracts are invalid! They can only legally hire you if they have a SAFEA license. Therefore, any contract you sign with an agent is most likely not worth the paper it’s written on. Having said that, there are many agents, though operating illegally, do actually provide teachers with job opportunities and do pay salaries in a timely manner. If there is a problem in your job, however, the school may not pay the agent the full amount, and you may not receive your entire salary. There is little or no legal recourse when you’re working illegally.
Agents will often give incorrect advice in regard to visas. They will tell you that you can legally work on something other than a work visa, when in fact it’s illegal. If you want to work in China legally, do not work through an agency – only have a contract with the company where you’ll be teaching, and that company should have a SAFEA license.