New Zealand Embassy Beijing, China

Employment Contracts

While employment contracts are usually straightforward the context in which the contract exists can be different in China from elsewhere. Chinese people see business less in terms of a legally based interaction, more in terms of relationships. Consequently there is a less developed sense of law in Chinese business relations than is generally the case in international business. For many Chinese, a contract is part of the process beginning a relationship, and 'beginning' is the important word. The contract is only as binding as the personal relationship.

There are also the differing expectations of both parties in any contract. Some teachers expect to be treated as professionals and are shocked when they are not. Others expect to make a lot of money but end up out of pocket. Starting employment with realistic expectations will help prepare you for the inevitable stress and possible disappointment you may encounter.

It is not surprising, therefore, that foreigners in China occasionally have contract disputes with their employers. Contract terms are sometimes ignored or there are different interpretations as to how the details should be honoured. Providing a bed in a dormitory, sharing communal ablutions and eating in the staff canteen can be said to be providing free accommodation and meals. Teachers need to be clear on all terms in the contract and not make cultural assumptions – for example if you ask for a computer with internet access, make sure it has English software and access to a working telephone line.

The employer may consider the contract a simple working agreement; subject to change depending upon the circumstances and usually after the teacher has arrived in China. Most Chinese do not view deviations from a contract as a "breach" and few would consider taking an employer to court over a contract dispute.

Instead, Chinese tend to view contracts as flexible and subject to further negotiation. Furthermore, the written contract is not the real contract; the unwritten, oral agreement that one has with one's employer is the real contract. The contract should be signed with these factors in mind.

Basic features of most teaching contracts:
Contracts for teaching positions usually cover the following:

  • the period of the contract – usually between six to twelve months
  • work visa and tax status - the employer should provide the necessary documentation required to apply for the appropriate visa. They will also arrange a Foreign Experts Certificate after arrival
  • salary - usually paid monthly
  • hours and days of work
  • class size and any teaching equipment/support available
  • accommodation – perhaps full board and lodging is provided, or an allowance is paid in lieu
  • return air ticket - paid for and received before departure
  • medical insurance – should be of international status and include a medivac provision. Local insurance polices are very limited in terms of coverage
  • change in conditions - the contract should state that any unilateral changes made upon arrival nullify the agreement and give the teacher the right to return home without penalty.
  • early termination of contract – what are the options should either the teacher or school wish/need to terminate the contract early?

If these items are not covered in the contract, one should negotiate before starting work to have them included. Only once a signed contract and work visa has been received should you depart New Zealand/commence work. When in doubt, ask.

Some language schools do not have a license to employ foreign teachers. Not only are they paying under the table but the school is unable to sponsor the foreign teacher for the appropriate visa. These teachers end up working illegally on a tourist visa.

Your local Exit-Entry administration division also has jurisdiction over foreigners’ working conditions. The office may, at your request, call employers to remind them of their legal obligations. If you have exhausted all other avenues and feel that you need to take legal action, the embassy can provide a list of lawyers.

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