Dan Harris is an American lawyer with expertise in China.
His office has been getting flooded with emails from American teachers in China over the past year. His blog this week is titled: Do Not Teach English In China.
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.
2. Visa issues.
3. Non-payment or underpayment.
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). (Emphasis added).
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:
The 3 problems:
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.
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.
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.
I think what Americans don’t easily grasp is that in the USA, laws typically protect workers. In this context, laws seem to protect employers.
It’s important to understand that this isn’t the Chinese government going after American teachers. It’s the school administrators themselves calling in the authorities to report their own teachers, so they don’t have to pay.
Plus Dan and his legal colleagues often find that the Chinese version of a contract does not line up with the English language portion, and teachers are quite vulnerable (they can’t afford an attorney to review their employment contract, the way a big shot executive would).
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.
While I found this news disheartening, I am grateful to Dan as his cautionary note is a public service.
Dan is a “canary in the coal mine.” Who would learn first about these sorts of issues? An American lawyer like Dan with a “China Law blog” that is easily Googled of course.
But internet being what it is, word will spread quickly if the trend continues. I’ve already written that Chinese demand for American/British teachers is growing but supply is flat. That was before the tariff escalations. Now add in a possible decline to this already short labor supply. Hmm.
With every problem comes an opportunity.
In these types of situations, a trade association can go a long way to protect the (many) honest/good schools. I could imagine a standard contract with “verified” translation, paycheck protection, etc. It will be interesting if the honest schools organize in this way.
If I operated a school or school network in China that hired lots of American teachers, I’d create a website and promote the integrity of our contracts and skill with visas. Say something to American teachers like:
“There are some bad operators here. We’re absolutely safe, though. We’re represented in USA by X lawyer and Y academics affiliated with Z university/company who guarantee our authenticity. If you want to teach in China, teach with us. Otherwise, beware!”
I would also retain a Chinese lawyer and try to get Dan’s office to refer matters to us. Maybe for a group of 10 such teachers, the economics would make it worth the lawyer’s effort to try to recover the money. Maybe the advice would be: “Unfortunately, you’ll never recapture your lost wages, you should leave ASAP. But you could apply to join our team. We’ve won over Dan’s confidence through X and Y measures.”
Imagine a school struggling to find enough strong expat teachers getting 10 applicants a day from disgruntled-but-otherwise-good American teachers already in China! Hire the best 10% and your parents and students would love it….