There are a number of common tricks and pitfalls that you need to be aware of when being employed as a foreign teacher in China. Employers commonly use ignorance of Chinese law to manipulate and exploit foreigner teachers. The funny thing is that quite often, employers themselves don’t understand the Chinese law. You can be one step ahead by doing the following:
1. Don’t Let Them Hold Your FEC
There are some centers and colleges who want to hold you Foreign Expert Certificate (FEC) “for safe keeping”. The real reason they want to hold it is because at the end of your contact, they are afraid you will not give it back to them. They need it for the completion of documentation when your employment has formally ended – Your employer is obliged to return your FEC to the Foreign Expert Bureau upon completion of your employment.
However, according to Chinese law you are supposed to carry your FEC with you at all times! So why would they hold a document which you need to have on you? Because they don’t care about what trouble you might face by not having it on you, they only care about the trouble they may face if you don’t give it back to them at the end.
What can happen: A colleague of mine was stopped by the police on the street for a random check. He had his passport, but not his FEC. He was finger-printed and taken to the police station. He had to wait there for several hours whilst someone from the school organized to bring his FEC.
What do to about it: Before you sign any contact, get it writing they’ll let you hold your FEC. They may wish to add that you agree to return it at the end of your employment, which is fair.
Check Contract Carefully For Penalties
Chinese labor law is much different to that of western countries. Employers may include clauses that make your jaw drop. It’s typical for them to include clauses where money can be deducted from your salary for various reasons. There are often ridiculous clauses where you need to pay a fine of at least 10 times your monthly salary if you break the contract. People have been in situations where they have needed to urgently return to their country for family reasons, with the school demanding payment of the fine with threats of police involvement and legal action. Therefore, it’s often necessary to tell your prospective employers that you are unable to sign until particular clauses are deleted or modified.
There are often clauses which relate to work performance. In western culture we like to encourage good performance with bonuses, and deal with unsatisfactory performance with extra training or appropriate feedback with a focus on improvement. In Chinese companies, if you’re performance is good you probably won’t get anything, unless it’s a great year for the company and you’re an executive. For lower level employees, if you make the smallest of mistakes in your job money will be deducted from your salary. The bigger the mistake, the more they’ll deduct. There will be little feedback other than what you’ve done wrong and how much money it’ll cost you. With foreign employees, they are a little more lenient, but do expect to have money deducted from your salary in some situations.
It’s hard to understand the attitude of Chinese employers unless you’re familiar with how Chinese children are educated. Shame and use of negative reinforcement is central to early education. Chinese students are more likely to be punished for poor performance than rewarded for good performance. When students do achieve highly, the bar is raised; The student who usually comes first in the class will be scolded by his parents if he suddenly comes second. No wonder suicide rates amongst students are so high in China, and it’s very often top students who take their own lives.
This is why it’s very important to check your contract for unreasonable penalties. It’s not something to be taken personally because that is how they are educated. You can do something about it by requesting that they remove the excessive penalty clauses. You can express that you’re uncomfortable with so many penalty clauses, but no bonus clauses!
Understand Sick Leave in China
In western countries, if you’re on a salaried position you’d expect a certain number of days of sick leave with full pay. In China, do not take this for granted! You may not receive ANY sick leave with full pay. I was shocked to discover in my first salaried position I would only receive half-pay for each day of sick leave. You need to look carefully for the sick leave clause in the contract. If it does not exist or you’re not satisfied with it, discuss it with your employer and have them write a mutually agreeable sick leave clause into the contract – fully-paid sick leave is reasonable. Sick leave with half-pay is common which may be all some employers will offer.
It’s important to be clear on what you need to do in order to apply for sick leave. Ensure they don’t have any ridiculous clause requiring you to call in 48 hours beforehand if you are sick (you can wake up sick!). Most of them will also require a medical certificate in order for you to apply for sick leave. For many foreigners, going to a Chinese hospital to attain a medical certificate can be worse than the illness itself! You may be able to negotiate with them that a medical certificate is required only if you take more than one day at a time, you can justify this by saying that as a foreigner, you have a lot of trouble going to a Chinese hospital, especially when you are sick!