Tangled in the Sticky Web of a Chinese Contract…


When I signed my contract for China last year,  I knew the small print left a lot to be desired.  It was not just the small print, actually there was very little to commend the contract to anyone…  Pay seemed adequate.   Not generous, but then again it was hardly going to be a full time job and as demand for English teachers in China easily outstrips supply, salaries are simply boosted by doing some private work on the side.  Although the contract included provision for medical insurance (as required by Chinese law), there was no room for being sick, unless of course without salary…    Holiday pay was non-existent (apart from eight Chinese statutory holidays), on the other hand there was the potential of doing extra work in July and August to tide teachers over.   The work on offer by my agency amounted to more hours for less pay…   Would I be interested??  Really??


The not inconsiderable cost of obtaining a working visa would be paid by the teachers, rather than the employer as is the norm in other industries (or ESL agencies in neighbouring countries)…  As far as getting flights reimbursed at the end of the contract, I worked out in an instant that under no circumstances anyone would ever be able to get the full amount promised by the contract.   ‘Pro rata’ definitely worked in the favour of the agency…    And if anyone thought of jumping ship mid-contract, the penalties for doing so involved the repayment of several months of salary…  Your only options would be to leave the country straight after payday never to return, taking all your hard-earned ‘kuai’ with you,  or vanish off the radar whilst hanging on to your hard-earned ‘kuai’  and join the merry band of illegally employed teachers and run the risk of deportation if caught…

Of course, I put out feelers and spoke to people on the ground before  signing…  Curiously, the agency’s London Office could only put me in touch with two teachers, both still in their honeymoon period after just six weeks in China and in the job…  Glowing reports flowed my way.  ‘Great job.  Great kids,’  Italian Anna assured me.  ‘Best thing I’ve ever done,’ South African Riaan declared.  But as the contract strictly forbade employees to say anything negative about either the agency or the schools, no surprises there, I was hardly going to get to the crux of things…   Anna profusely apologised afterwards knowing that her positive spin certainly glossed over the less attractive side of the job.   ‘I felt bad,’ she explained, but what choice did she have?

Although a lot of contracts for ESL teachers in China run along the same lines, mine was particularly ungenerous, probably one of the least generous ones I have come across.  But, in those early days, I placated myself:  I was going there for the experience,  and that was all that mattered…   At least I had read and understood the contract and started the job with my eyes wide open, which is more than can be said of the many younger teachers.  So even if the reality might turn out to be a tad uncomfortable, it would certainly be interesting..  And come the end of the contract, I would be free to leave and head for my next adventure!!


The academic year ran relatively peacefully …   Just a few hiccups along the way as agencies use two different contracts: one for the teachers and another one for their schools.  Unfortunately,  the promises made to the schools do not always tally with the promises made to teachers and expectations vary accordingly.   Most things got smoothed over along the way quite effortlessly.  We, the foreign teachers, found refuge in our own ‘Foreign Teachers’ Office’ and our contact with the rest of the Chinese staff was limited to essential, need-to-know communication.   After a while one-sided efforts to integrate sapped all our energy  and seemed very pointless…  Plus, what the eye does not see, the heart doesn’t grieve over…  The feeling was definitely mutual!

In early October, with the end of my contract looming in the distance  and my daughter’s wedding in the UK just on the horizon, decision time was imminent: should I extend the Chinese episode or move to the next destination… ? In any event, no way would I spend another year in the little hamlet of Linping…  Too quiet, no pubs, no social life, no life…  Having filled the evenings of my first year in China with copious amounts of evening work and watching Grey’s Anatomy,  change was essential.  Downtown Hangzhou all the way, I thought!!

To keep things simple, I first approached my current agency to see whether they would improve on my salary and transfer me to a school in a more desirable location, in the heart of  Hangzhou civilisation, rather than on the periphery.  After weeks of dragging things out, I finally was given the best I could hope for…  A meagre increase (but at the top end of what any teacher in the agency could expect); a vague verbal promise of a relocation to downtown Hangzhou, depending upon vacancies; and a not so vague clause in the contract suggesting they could place me in any school in any area they deemed appropriate…  Plus could I also please pay an advance on my salary  for February/March so they could afford to pay for my medical insurance…  I would eventually get this money back in my April salary as, clearly, the contract stated that it was the agency’s responsibility to fork out for this and was part of the package…  ‘Hell, no,’ I said…  It was time to look elsewhere, so I did.

Of course the agency kept my school very much in the dark about my decision to leave after having  reassured them in September  that I would stay at least until the end of June, the full academic year…   An interesting pledge, especially as my contract was definitely due to finish in January and I certainly had not been approached by them with a request to extend it until June.  Suddenly, their proposed new contract made sense:  there would be no relocation to downtown Hangzhou, because, first and foremost, the agencies need to appease the schools…  I would have been given the choice of staying put –‘ Sorry, no suitable school available in downtown’ –  or moving to a less desirable area in China.  And having signed a contract with no real get-out clause, I would have been trapped and probably would have resigned myself to another six months of boredom…  Clearly the preferred outcome for the agency.   ‘Lucky escape!’ I thought.

Finding a new job was child’s play… In order of importance: I have the passport, I have the (Masters!!) degree, I have the  experience and a qualification to teach English as a foreign language, so I can get the right visa…  Although not a native by origin, my British passport is all that matters to qualify as a native English speaker in China… and believe you me, as a non-native at least I can write and speak grammatically correct English and have an accent that is universally understood…


The sticky point was that the new job involved moving to another agency which made everything decidedly tricky.    Avoiding a costly visit back to the UK and applying for a new visa hinged on the transfer of my  ‘Foreign Expert Certificate’ and work permit before the expiry of my residence permit which coincided with the expiry of my contract…  and being the innocent piggy-in-the-middle between an aggrieved school and a thwarted agency meant I could expect no favours or help from either of them.

It may well have been that my agency’s hands were tied and it would have been difficult to effect the transfer any earlier, but any reputable agency – as I was told later – should allow for transfer time in their contract…  It is a mean streak, designed to discourage teachers to change agencies because of the cost and time involved in obtaining a new visa, especially since agencies (in China) expect the teachers to bear all the costs…

Although my new contract with the new agency is on much improved terms, it is still with an agency rather than directly with a school…  By the time my new boss (all of 25 years old and I can assure you that in the ‘interview over lunch’ I was the one asking the questions..) indignantly stated, ‘You have a British passport, you have the experience, you have the qualifications!!  You do not need an agency to get a job in China…’ I had already signed the contract… So, we will see how this one pans out…

You live and learn but some lessons are definitely more expensive than others…  And  not being able to transfer my ‘Foreign Expert Certificate’ and work permit turned out very expensive indeed…   (more in the next post)


4 thoughts on “Tangled in the Sticky Web of a Chinese Contract…

  1. Judie

    Looking forward to the next episode. The thing about working abroad is the not knowing the system and as you say getting caught up in the middle of things because let’s face it, they just want to get the most out of you for the least. Good look with the new job x


    1. lievelee Post author

      Indeed… and just as I thought I had everything sorted to leave for China this week, another spanner in the wheels… There seems no end to the obstacles to my return. But as my Chinese colleague pointed out this afternoon: there is an old Chinese saying ‘Good things come to those who wait and wait…’ Time will tell whether the next episode in China will have been worth the wait.


    1. lievelee Post author

      I hope this does not put him off… at the end of the day it is an experience and the trick is to get employed directly by a school or a university rather than going through an agency. At least both parties know what they have agreed to and what the expectations are. BUT it is China, and unfortunately, one thing I have learned is to be cautions, very cautious and take everything they say with a large pinch of salt… Only believe what you can see..

      Liked by 1 person


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