Legal Rights and Responsibilities for Foreign Workers in China

Legal Rights and Responsibilities for Foreign Workers in China
Sep 22, 2020 By Randall Cox ,

Working in China can feel overwhelming at times. Cultural and linguistic difficulties can be hard to overcome, and labor laws and employer expectations often differ widely from those in other parts of the world. It’s essential, therefore, that you’re knowledgeable about labor laws and employee rights. Below is a short guide to your legal rights and responsibilities as a foreign worker in China.  

Legal Rights and Responsibilities for Foreign Workers in China
Source: Brooke Cagle

Proper Documentation

The first point, and perhaps the most important, is that without the proper documents, a foreign worker in China has no legal rights. This may seem obvious, but we’ve all heard stories of expats being detained and deported from China after working under sketchy circumstances.

It’s essential that you have your documents in order, which will typically be a work (Z) visa and a residence permit. As the process of obtaining a work visa is long and complicated, those coming to China for work for the first time should insist that they are issued with a Z-visa prior to arrival. Anything less could see you stranded here for months on end, unable to legally work and/or pressured to work illegally.

Also, if a dispute arises between you and your employer down the line, you’ll have no legal standing to pursue a complaint against them without the correct visa, even with a signed and sealed contract. Never take an employer’s word as gospel when it comes to the documents you need. Do the research yourself and make sure you’re on the right side of the law.

Following the Contract

Many foreign workers in China see work contracts as a perfunctory step to getting hired and getting paid. We all know it’s necessary and important, but how many of us study it carefully and are aware of our rights and responsibilities? 

You probably paid attention to the big things like salary, housing allowance, and health insurance, but a typical contract is anywhere from10 to 20 pages long. It’s hard work reading through that much legalese, particularly the sections detailing unlikely or obscure occurrences, but a rule or provision that seemed innocuous when you were excited to be hired may take on a new, uncomfortable meaning once you’ve started working.

In China, only the Chinese language version of a contract is legally binding, so it’s a good idea to have a bilingual person read both versions and check that they match. All contracts in China must include the following clauses, though additional clauses will likely be added by the employer:

(1) Term of the labor contract;
(2) Work assignment;
(3) Labor protection and working conditions;
(4) Labor remuneration;
(5) Labor discipline;
(6) Conditions for the termination of the labor contract;
(7) Liabilities for the violation of the labor contract.

Once you’re hired, you’re expected to follow the letter and spirit of the contract. Most contracts contain a clause that states that failure to comply could result in disciplinary action and/or termination. It’s your responsibility, therefore, to make sure you understand and follow the contract.

Be aware, however, that your employer cannot include anything in the contract that violates Chinese labor laws. Information on some of China’s top-line labor laws can be found here, while a full English language version is available here.

Handling Disputes

Should a dispute arise with your employer as a foreign worker in China, it’s essential that you have properly documented the chain of events. Any important correspondence with your employer and colleagues should be sent by email so there’s proof of what was said and when. Likewise, should you resign or simply decline to sign a new contract, this should always be done in writing.

In most cases, employees and employers part amicably. But there is always the possibility of a misunderstanding or an unscrupulous act by an employer. All the more reason to know your contract inside-out and keep written, ideally electronic, records of important communications and any disputes or disagreements.

Your rights and responsibilities at your place of work will be detailed in the contract and likely a company handbook. But while your contract is legally binding, as mentioned above, it does not supersede Chinese law. If your employer has violated Chinese labor laws in any way and you can prove it, you’ll have plenty of leverage in internal disputes.

Obviously, you always have the right to leave, but keep in mind that the contract likely details the circumstances and procedures for terminating your employment. If you plan to resign, therefore, be sure to follow these rules to the letter, otherwise your employer may decide to withhold your final paycheck, hold your important papers, or cancel your visa before it’s been transferred to a new employer.

Finally, a bit of housekeeping: I’m sure we all know someone who, in extreme circumstances, has simply left their work in China without notice and returned home. While I don’t want to judge anyone who’s done this, it does make things harder for us foreigners remaining in China. Overall, it can be a cause for greater restrictions on foreign workers, and it goes without saying that it’ll likely mean it would be impossible for you to return to China for work should you ever wish to.

Protection Against Discrimination

Many employment discrimination protections that are found in most other countries are also present in China, including laws that protect workers who might face discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, and religious belief. How well these are implemented and applied, however, is another matter.

In March of 2019, after numerous international recommendations, China also agreed to adopt anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT persons. While this is an encouraging step, at this time, there are very few cases of the new laws actually being applied.

What’s more, there are currently no labour laws that protect someone from being discriminated against based on age. It’s becoming increasingly common for employers, particularly schools, to put a hard cap on the age of foreign employees. While pretty much everywhere in China will not issue work visas to foreigners over the age of 60, I’ve seen some job postings state rather boldly that they won’t take anyone over 40. Obviously this is grounds for a lawsuit in most Western countries, but as a foreign worker in China, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Finally, married and childless women of childbearing age may find themselves struggling to find work in China. Employers assume any married and childless woman in her late-20s to mid-30s is liable to fall pregnant at any moment, making them a risky investment. While employers were last year banned from asking about family status, such probing questions are in reality still commonplace. In extreme circumstances, job adverts may explicitly ask for men only or women with children, while some employers have reportedly even forced women to take pregnancy tests as part of the recruitment process. Under the new rules, all this is a breach of labor law.

Familiarizing yourself with the dense web of rules, regulations, laws, and customs — some obvious and important, others obscure and seemingly pointless — is the best way to ensure your time here goes smoothly. A peaceful working life in China requires, at least in part, understanding and acting on your legal rights and responsibilities as a foreign worker in China.

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Apr 26, 2021 15:31 Report Abuse



this all sounds good, not sure it works in practise

Sep 23, 2020 10:04 Report Abuse