Sep 15, 2015 By Danielle Martin ,

You’ve made the bold move and arrived in China. You apply for several jobs online and soon enough, an offer is sent your way. Seduced by the prospect of building a career in China and gaining a legal work visa, you eagerly accept. However, as you begin the painstaking process of switching to a work visa, you realise you may have been too hasty: the company suddenly confesses its inability to process to your visa. This situation is surprisingly common in China and as highlighted in this article, there are several ‘red flags’ to look out for when browsing through job adverts and negotiating with your future employer.

 ‘Red Flags’ to Watch Out for When Working in China
Photo: Jeremy

Visa deceptions

There are at least three companies I know of that can’t give the correct visas to foreigners in Hangzhou. The first one has its headquarters in Beijing and this is its only registered office. This famous, popular English language training school for adults has many branches across China; many people know of it. What most people don’t know is that since it only has one registered office, the visas it provides are only valid at their Beijing branch. If a school wants to trade legally, it must register each branch separately which is at a considerable cost to the company. So they cut corners. They register one branch, open more, and hire foreigners under the misconception that they can provide valid working (Z) visas. Don’t get me wrong, they can: but only at the registered branch. Ergo, as soon as you leave the province after obtaining the visa to then work in another branch, your visa is no longer valid and so effectively illegal.

The second school I know of is in the same vein as the first: it has its headquarters registered in Shanghai and so the visas it provides are valid only at the Shanghai branch of the school. As soon as you leave Shanghai, they are invalid.

The third school is through personal experience. I got a job there. Unbeknown to me at the time, companies are only allowed to hire foreigners if they have been trading for at least two years and they must prove that they have 1 million RMB in assets. The company I signed with had been trading for nine months and the problems arose as soon as I gave them my documents to process in order to renew my working visa. It soon became apparent that they had hired me illegally, were unable to process the paperwork and so I left. The above examples are just some of the legal issues foreigners encounter during their work life in China.

Questions you should clarify with an employer

1) Can you get me a working (Z) visa?
If the answer to this is anything other than an outright ‘yes’ then run. As fast as possible in the opposite direction! Any other visa type whilst working here is illegal in China. If you are residing here – or thinking of – and you have a job, then your employer is legally bound to provide the correct documents for you. If they make excuses, say it’s easier to process other visa types, or offer to get you a business (F), student (X) or tourist (L) visa, they are not a legitimate company. Under no circumstances should you consider working for them. The wider implications of this also means that as an employee you have no recourse should things go wrong. Foreigners have minimal ability to rectify any situations here on the mainland anyway, but without the correct visa type you have no leverage whatsoever. 

2) How long have you been trading?
A cursory internet search will no doubt answer this question, but if you would like further information then ask them outright. As mentioned above, if they have been open for less than two years they are not allowed to legally hire foreigners in any capacity.

3) How is the salary made up?
Is the amount offered in the advertisement the same as take-home pay? This means, are you going to be taxed? Tax ranges anywhere from a couple of hundred RMB to more than a thousand, depending on the salary and the tax bracket you’re in. You should also enquire as to whether the salary includes housing allowance or whether this is this given separately as an additional payment?

4) Holidays and days off
Do you receive any vacation days? If so, what and when are they? Are you entitled to take personal affairs leave or sick leave and is this paid? Most Chinese schools offer the statutory Chinese holidays to all of their employees. Anything more than this is usually not included and as such you risk taking any extra days unpaid. The only way to guarantee extra days off is to negotiate them into your contract. As for days off, when are they? Will you be entitled to one or two? Are they split or together? These are all small questions but become hugely important if you sign a contract and haven’t nailed down the specifics beforehand. The smallest things tend to become the most difficult to rectify at a later date if it’s not in black and white.

Typical advertisement

Let’s take this advertisement for a school in Hangzhou and read between the lines of what it is offering:

“Salary and Benefits for Full-time Teachers:
1. Monthly salary: 9000 RMB- 20000 RMB salary is commensurate with qualifications, with the ability to teach more periods for a higher salary.
2. Classes are usually 30-45 min.
3. Low office hours.
4. Sponsor Working Visa.”

The first huge red flag is the salary range: 9,000-20,000 RMB. This is highly unlikely given that there are no other schools in Hangzhou that pay 20,000 RMB a month. The only way a salary that high would be legitimate is if it were being advertised in one of the more expensive cities to live such as Beijing or Shanghai where salary is relative to living costs. However, even then this is an abnormally high amount. If this salary were indeed true, you should expect to be working unsociable hours, doing lots of preparation, taking VIP classes, participating in extra-curricular activities – basically justifying the high salary that they are paying you. There’s no such thing as a free lunch!  

The second red flag is the class time. Most classes are 50-55 minutes long. Anything shorter than this are normally counted as two periods being taught back-to-back. So for example, if the class is 40 or 45 minutes long, expect to be teaching 90 minutes with a five minute break in between. Is that acceptable to you? It doesn’t state this in the advertisement but effectively the class is 45 minutes long, it would more than likely have a five minute break and then continue for a further 45 minutes. So it’s not an outright lie, but it is bending the truth somewhat.

Low office hours: does this mean no office hours? One a day? Fixed schedule times? Or can you do your preparation time at home? The office hours expected varies from company to company but you should make sure that the requirements of these are crystal clear before signing your life away. Some schools are happy that you arrive in time for your scheduled teaching hours, do your job and then leave. However, some expect a required number of office hours in order to prepare for your classes. These are mandatory and are included in your working week.

These days we are seeing a dip in the salaries being negotiated for foreigners, especially at foreign language training schools.  In part this is down to the influx of foreign workers – there are more foreigners available to do the job and so schools can lower the salary expectations knowing that they can hire somebody who will accept the lower wage.

Another reason is the high number of non-native English speakers who are being recruited to teach English. Often these applicants are from European countries and “look the part”, but the schools use the excuse that they aren’t native speakers to pay them a lower salary. They then set a precedent by offering a lower wage which filters out across the board meaning the rest of the schools in the locale follow suit. Schools aren’t bothered about teachers’ credentials as much as how they fit in and boost their image.

Ultimately, when it comes to applying for a job in China go with your gut instinct if something doesn’t sound right. If you are continually being fobbed off or the goalposts keep moving in regard to contract terms and conditions, it’s a good bet that this is only the beginning. If things aren’t going smoothly from the off, don’t expect that they will get better once you’re an employee – they won’t. There are plenty of forums and helpful expats with sound knowledge of the local area that you’re applying to and who will answer any queries you may have about a potential employer: schools with bad reputations travel quickly amongst foreigners. Make sure you do your homework and start off on the right foot to land that dream job that you’ve always been waiting for.

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Keywords: Working in China red flags when working in China career in China

33 Comments Add your comment



Good article, all true. Do the research and ask lots of questions. Good places are looking for good teachers. And good teachers ask good questions. If they try to ignore your questions or give vague answers... they are most likely going to make your life difficult.

Jun 02, 2014 01:03 Report Abuse



Exactly mate. Thumbs up!

Jun 02, 2014 09:06 Report Abuse



Good Article! I get so angry with english teachers who always come to my institution DEMANDING 12k - 15k. We are located in a small city. They get angry with me because they say it standard in the whole country. In fact, it's the schools fault for lying and posting these fake super high salaries. 20,000 in Beijing is ok. However, the cost of living eats most of that up. So, who would deserve a high salary. I pay attention to track record. If you just came off the boat i'm not giving you sh!t. If you work at many instutions only a year here or a year there... I'm not giving you sh!t. The holy grail of english teachers are those that don't have an alcohol or character problem and they have been proven to stay institutions for a long time with good feedback. Not all schools are exploitive or want to abuse teachers. But, the good ones are becoming more selective and attempting to reserve better pay for better and proven teachers. There are just too many teachers in Cjina, but the quality ones are hard to come by. Those types should be highly respected. Hell, I would throw money at such a type. But, again... it's not that easy. You have the entitled that their sh!t doesn't stink because they are foreigners. Then, you have the certified up types who have tons of degrees... but, no actually proof of a long record or loyalty to an institution... to make matters worse, they suck in the class. Then, you have the crazies (sex freaks, marijuana addicts, alcoholic, etc) Then, you have the temporaries. They are only in China to leave as soon as possible. So, at the end of the day you have a small pool of excellency. Schools... I suggest you pay and treat these rare great teachers well because once they leave, they will not be easily replaced...

Jun 02, 2014 09:15 Report Abuse



>>Then, you have the temporaries. They are only in China to leave as soon as possible.<< Sure. Why not when you find out your first 7,000 rmb paycheck doesn't hit the bank account until 7 weeks after you start even though you've spent 6500rmb to get here with visa.

Jun 14, 2014 19:40 Report Abuse



Then they should have done research in order to find a school that doesn't do that.

Sep 15, 2015 14:32 Report Abuse



A whole lot of unnecessary profanities there. That said, I've found that it really is up to the Foreigner (in whatever profession they chose in China), to negotiate the best deal for themselves and to spot the warning signs and to ensure they have a Plan B - how to escape an abusive employer. Too many Foreigners come here who allow themselves to be abused who seem to think Chinese employers have the same ethics as a Western Employer. I like to think that the negotiations never end in a Chinese job. You are always negotiating. If the Chinese employer thinks they can get away with not paying you and that you will stay, then they will try. It is up to you to make sure that you remove your services in this event and go elsewhere. I've had employers agree a price with me for them to try to renegotiate it down the next day. My response. Walk away...and eventually you will get the original price - but I wonder how many people have just accepted it still.

Jun 02, 2014 13:06 Report Abuse



I agree. There are nightmare schools here. Then, there are great schools. When it comes to negotiations, it's all about what people can bring to the table. If there is that one great school that isn't exploitive...a track record of bar hopping alcoholism, going from school to school and just being egotistical doesn't help. Teachers who deserve high pay have good reasons for such things. It's not just... let me see how much money I can get because I am special. I really would toss cash at someone with great qualifications. But, again... most negotiations are: Give me more money because so and so offers... Ok, then work there... Show me your loyalty to previous institutions, good character and hard work. Then, we have a deal. As for nightmare schools, they don't care about you in the first place. So, you will get screwed some how...

Jun 02, 2014 13:56 Report Abuse



Why not name names? If they can't get you a Z, move on.

Jun 02, 2014 16:54 Report Abuse



A friend of mine who has been living in China for over 10 years said to me one day: Sadly it is common. They will say yes yes yes to your face without even giving it a second thought and once your back is turn they will change the entire story or tell you it was a misunderstanding. My job was supposed to be training teachers in order to give the students the best possible education. Supposed to be 100% my way. Run as I saw fit with a free hand to help build the quality of the program. Instead boss now says forget about the crappy teachers and do promotional management, sales and marketing, international curriculum design, human resources and finance. By myself, and get it all done in 3 days a week. Also cancel my other good job with no notice and no extra pay anytime they choose. Here is an absolute joke. My visa expires next week and they are only just now starting the paperwork and don't understand why I am upset. Chinese business people here are all the same. Profit first, employees 10th. The Chinese government does not regulate business like they do back home.

Jun 03, 2014 09:06 Report Abuse



good comment

Jun 05, 2014 23:58 Report Abuse



‘Red Flags’ to Watch Out for When Working in China? If the business is located in China, run for your life.

Jun 03, 2014 20:43 Report Abuse



Cracking advice, cheers!

Jun 04, 2014 00:31 Report Abuse



So true! Well done mate! That is exactly what I do with them, I run by the ''you get what you give'' motto. No time for non sense BS! Lol

Jan 26, 2015 13:38 Report Abuse



About the "working hours" bit, that's not necessarily true. In Guangxi province, all my classes have been between 35 minutes (public primary classes) and 1.5 hours (at my private training center). I had a real working visa at both jobs. The most common class length here is 40 minutes.

Jun 05, 2014 11:51 Report Abuse



I have been working in Shenyang now for over 5 years, i find some new schools are starting in the city, what i cannot understand is the new training schools are paying 100 RMB for one class hour part time work and 90 for contract, and they are a franchise, so they would have the backing of other schools, when the fact there is many training schools in Shenyang, the going pay is 150 to 300 Per hour. why would a new school that is a franchise be paying so little when the other franchise schools are paying from 160 up. 100 RMB for one hour is the pay you would expect to get 4 to 5 years ago. 99% of my friends would not get out of bed to work for any less than 200 one hour. and if you need to take a taxi to work and it cost you 30RMB to get to work each day it would give you a pitiful income. i read that some expect you to stay at the school for 40 to 50 hours a week and teach 25 hours. one week holiday a year and if you have to miss the class you get no pay but if you go to work and the students dont come you still get no pay and need to pay to get there. I would like A comment on this as if one of the no name schools i am speaking of is cheating people i like to know or we need to report them as they have adds on this web page. they dont offer a place to live for free.

Jun 06, 2014 00:11 Report Abuse



I can't agree with all of this. I live and work in HZ and I do get paid more than 20,000, my classes are 40 minutes, not back to back for the same class (normally). I do have different classes during the next period. I don't have many office hours this year, but that is supposed to change next year as they want us to keep normal hours at the school. (I can't blame them in some ways, even back home teachers have to be there while the school is open, unless you teach at a college.) The reason I get paid so well is because I teach a specialized subject. I can see that if you taught only oral English it might be different. I have worked in China for almost 7 years and have been paid fairly well the entire time. I don't take low-ball offers, especially if the recruiter or HR manager says there will be opportunities later. In fact, if I hear there will be opportunities later, then I know they mean in another life, unless the statement comes from a foreigner. You do have to watch out for recruiters, many will tell you anything so they will get you hired.

Jun 09, 2014 18:38 Report Abuse



>>In fact, if I hear there will be opportunities later, then I know they mean in another life,<< roflmao! :)

Jun 14, 2014 19:35 Report Abuse



Really very helpful topic.. Such a great information you provided here. Thanks for sharing

Jun 11, 2014 08:10 Report Abuse



I was employed by a well-known English learning centre in Foshan and later discovered that they had hired me illegally. They had no permit to hire foreign teachers. I was outraged when I found out. The local police found out and the obvious was done to keep it quiet.I resigned within a few months of finding this out as well as other abnormalities. The learning centre also make a habit of employing 95% local Chinese teachers to keep the costs down. So the students pay high tuition fees to learn poor English. I have worked at 3 different English learning centres in various parts of China and experienced the same lies, poor English tutoring and many awful foreign teachers in all of them. It isn't improving either.

Jun 12, 2014 12:20 Report Abuse



I hate those job adverts! People here will really not hire u if youre not pretty enough or whatever,,,, hate this

Jun 13, 2014 00:13 Report Abuse



Great article. Thank you!

Jun 14, 2014 19:33 Report Abuse



The salary: Many companies (Hamp and sons) flat lie to you about the salary and later tell you that you are being paid per class and not a flat salary. Other companies disguise their scams by breaking the salary into these convoluted sub-categories that will not be paid to you unless you meet certain criteria (Met and ens). The best way to understand how your salary is calculated is to give them an example. "If I'm scheduled for 80 classes, but 30 of them cancel because of a holiday, then what is my salary?" "If I work 20 classes per week, I get the base salary of 5000 rmb no matter what, correct? So, if I work 60 classes, then how much...?" You get the point. If they won't give you an explicit number, then don't sign.

Jun 16, 2014 10:51 Report Abuse



really helpful, thanks!

Jun 21, 2015 00:42 Report Abuse



ho hum, job...

Sep 15, 2015 06:17 Report Abuse



Personally you should work for a university or a high school directly...anybody else is going to work you too hard or cheat you...been doing this 7 years...

Sep 15, 2015 10:11 Report Abuse