The Basics of Evaluating a Chinese Employment Contract
The contract is of course the essential document in establishing your relationship with your employer. Once signed and submitted by both parties, you're going to have to live with the terms it specifies...so you'd better get it right before you sign it! In general, it's much easier for you to get what you want while you're negotiating than it is to change a standing contract later.
This post hopes to serve as a general guide to interpreting an offered contract, so that you'll know what terms-if any- need to be negotiated and changed before you sign it...and when to just walk away.
Let me begin by offering a bit of general advice: never sign a contract, or give a final answer- either 'yes' OR 'no'- during your first meeting with an employer. Chinese schools can be quite adept at putting heavy pressure on you to accept and sign a contract immediately, and may not always be completely truthful in the means they use to do so, but it's in your own best interest to not let these tactics succeed. You have EVERY RIGHT
to a reasonable period to read carefully, think things through, and to seek specific information or advice before saying 'yes', and it never hurts to leave the doors open to negotiation before saying 'no'. Never let yourself be pressured away from making an informed, optimal decision!
Also, ALWAYS get everything IN WRITING! NEVER take an oral agreement in China. Written contracts may not always be worth much in this country, but I can assure you that a spoken agreement is worth much, much less. In China, you can safely assume that if it ain't in writing, it just ain't happening. Your school may not be too happy to admit this, but it's quite easy to change a written contract in China as the result of negotiations. All they have to do is type up a written document stating the changes, and put the school's chop ("red stamp") on it, and both sides sign it. The document should be clearly titled something like "Appendix to Contract of (contract date) Between (your employer) And (your name). The document should also explicitly state that terms in the appendix supercede contradictory terms in the original contract.
Now, let's look at the major items you should be looking for in a contract:- Salary
Everybody's #1 concern! It's impossible to put a specific figure into a general guide, given the many different kinds of jobs on offer, the different hour loads you can be asked to accept, and the highly divergent standards and costs of living in different regions and cities across China.
But it's at least reasonable to assume that the salary offered should meet your personal needs, be a fair match for the hour load you're being given (and we'll look further into this later), and be reasonably competitive with your local market. To learn local market conditions, ask local expats what they are making. Get online and go to the job-listing sites, and take a look at the salaries being offered by comparable jobs...especially those in your city or region. Ask the forums what they know about salary levels in your chosen city. Be informed before you sign!- Working Hours
It's impossible to make a good judgment about salaries without also understanding this dimension...the two ideas are inextricably linked. First and foremost, your contract should be completely CLEAR
in stating the MAXIMUM
number of hours you can be required to work for your basic salary! Some contracts have been seen lately that were deliberately vague about the number of hours you can be called upon to work; you should NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES sign such a contract until these things are straightened out in writing.
Quite often, working hours are divided into classroom hours and non-classroom hours. You can be asked to take on some non-classroom duties such as office hours, English Corners/English Salons, sales and publicity work, testing and evaluations, Movie Nights, and so on. This is fine, and you should readily agree to such work...with the understanding that IT IS WORK, and you're going to be paid for it.
Therefore, your contract should clearly state the TOTAL
number of hours you can be required to work each week, and be explicitly divided into the maximum number of classroom hours, and the maximum number of non-classroom hours, you'll be expected to work each week. Again: if these obligations are not spelled out in a manner that's completely CLEAR
...DON'T sign the contract until this gets fixed...in writing.
Some good general guidelines: For public schools and universities, don't agree to more than 16 hours classroom and 5 hours non-classroom per week. For training centers, don't agree to more than 25 hours classroom and 5 hours non-classroom per week. If the employer wants more than this, only do so if your pay is increased proportionately. If the employer refuses to agree to this, fine...don't sign the contract, walk away to find an honest deal, and leave this stinker for some other fool to fill.
Sometimes employers want you to attend school parties at no pay. As long as this doesn't exceed an hour or two per month, what the hell...suck it up and go mingle. ANYTHING else, though...get paid or don't do it. You're a paid worker, not a slave or a servant.- "Farm-Outs"
Some schools cover their costs and make extra money by loaning you out to other schools- for example, a private school may book you into some hours teaching a local public elementary school. Such a possibility must be covered in your contract- if it's not, don't let them force it on you against your will. Not all of these deals are bad, but you might want to discuss and negotiate the details of how they work. If they send you a private car (or at least cover taxi costs), making these transitions is pretty effortless. If they're going to throw you a bus token and have you out covering Harbin in January (or Chongqing in August), then you may want to reconsider taking the job.- Overtime
Now that your base salary hours have been made clear, it's very easy to state that hours worked beyond that base will be paid at an hourly rate that's clearly stated in the contract. It should be made explicitly clear that overtime applies to ALL work performed, not just classroom teaching. It should be made explicitly clear that overtime is calculated on a reasonable time basis, such as "anything over X hours per day or Y hours per week." And finally, it should be made explicitly clear that overtime is ALWAYS optional, with the consent of both parties. Quite often the overtime rate offered by schools is terribly low, especially in public institutions, and it just isn't worth taking on that basis. Your employer DOES have the right to forbid your taking outside part-time work (and we'll talk more about that later), but they DON'T have the right to force you to work more hours at the ridiculous rate they want to pay you for it.- Contract Duration
Your contract should specify the beginning and ending dates of its effectiveness. Take a look- does the contract cover a 12-month calendar year (more common with private schools) or a 10-month "academic" year (more common with public schools)? If it's a 10-month, unless you're leaving China you'll have to figure out what to do with yourself for those 2 extra months...and remember, quite often when your contract ends, your residence permit and your housing will end along with it. If you're going to sign with the school for another year, sometimes you can negotiate permit and
housing coverage over the interim...but probably not salary. Many universities have small, low-key Summer programs, but jobs in them are few. You may have to consider taking a Summer-camp job (ugh...) or even going back home until the Summer passes.- Taxes
Even on the other side of the world from home, you may still have to deal with Rendering Unto Caesar. So it's important to know up front- is that advertised salary subject to taxation? If so, what's the tax rate? Any expectation of paying taxes should be clearly stipulated in the contract. They don't have to include an exact amount or rate, but there are a number of internet resources that can show you the "legit" way your income taxes should be calculated. You also have the right to ask your employer at any time exactly how your tax amount was determined. Keep an eye on this..."taxes" can be another way for employers to skim your salary. It's probably pretty safe to say that some, if not all, of the "taxes" you pay never reach the Tax Bureau. There's not much you can do about that, but if the taxes taken out don't pretty much foot to the official tax calculation, or seem wildly inconsistent from month to month, it's time to make some noise.- "Probation Periods"
It has become very trendy for Chinese contracts to stipulate a "probation period" that lets them pay you less for the first 1-3 months of your contract. You'll see language like, "Party A will pay Party B a monthly salary of 5000 RMB per month for the first 3 months of the contract, then beginning the 4th month Party A will pay Party B a monthly salary of 6000 RMB a month for the duration of the contract."
Folks, this is nothing more than STEALING
, pure and simple. It has absolutely nothing to do with evaluating you as a teacher, and absolutely everything to do with keeping some of your money for themselves. Any new job just about anywhere comes with a trial period during which they can fire you, or you can resign, with no reason and no penalty. They have no basis or excuse for paying you less...you're still doing the same work, and the students aren't paying less in tuition. It's just plain ol' stealing. Schools try it because too many of us foreigners are too clueless, or too timid, to stand up for ourselves and refuse it.
Therefore, I advise you...no, I implore you, I charge you, and I obligate you: NEVER sign a contract that has this kind of nonsense standing in it...for any duration, or for any amount of money. If they don't like you, let them fire you...but don't let them steal from you in the process.There are still plenty of schools that don't try and pull this crap on you. If your prospective employer won't back down on this one, don't sign the contract, walk away, and go find someone you can work for.
Think about it: do you really want your relationship with your new employer to START with them outright stealing money from you? Do you really think such an employer will hesitate to find other ways they can rob you, further down the road? THIS IS A DEAL-BREAKER. NEGOTIATE THIS AWAY, OR GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN.- Exclusivity/Non-Competition Clauses
Most contracts come with a stipulation that you not work for anyone else while the contract is effective. These clauses are widely violated by foreign teachers, but they're actually pretty reasonable things to ask. And, it's quite often not necessary to do outside work on the sly! Schools tend to worry about two things here: 1) That you not take food off their table by working with their direct competition, and 2) that your outside work not distract you from your full-time work or limit their ability to schedule you as they need you. As long as you can avoid these conflicts, most schools won't object to your taking a few outside classes...and being open about things is almost always better than sneaking around.