Richelle, my school hasn’t paid me for 2 months, what do I do??
I receive emails and messages about this topic more than I like to admit. While most of you will never have this problem, it is a huge worry, and this can happen to the best of us.
Whether you found this article because you’re currently waiting for your school to pay you, or you’re thinking about teaching in China, and you’re worried about getting scammed, it’s important to know your legal rights.
This post will not only teach you how to get out of a sticky situation without losing your money but also some steps you can take to avoid this ordeal in the first place.
My Personal Experience: Getting Paid Late By My School
In my first year of teaching full time in China, I had an issue: my school was not paying me on time. I was consistently getting my pay 1-2 weeks late, and whenever I asked why I was told that we “needed to wait until the accountants were finished.”
It wasn’t just me that was having this problem, the entire staff had to wait for the accountants to finish up each month. I honestly have no idea why they took so long to organize payment, especially since we were supposed to be paid on the 10th of the following month (super common in China). But Whatever it was, this late payment was affecting all of us.
What I Decided to Do
So, what did I do about my late payments? I took my contract to the English teacher who was sort of in charge of me and pointed out the line in my contract that stated I’d be paid on the 10th of the month.
When he told me this wasn’t possible, I said, “Why is this in my contract if it’s not possible? You shouldn’t put things in my official contract that the school can’t do. By not paying me on time, the school is breaking the contract with me.”
Do you want to know what happened? I was the ONLY employee in the entire school who was paid on time.
Making Waves in the Chinese Education System
Obviously, I don’t like to make problems or call attention to myself in a negative way, which is why I always pick my battles. To me, I needed to be paid on time so that I could send money home for student loans, and pay for my life in China. This is why I stood up for myself to ensure I was paid on time.
When I urged the other Chinese teachers to say something so that we could all be paid together, they told me it wasn’t possible for them to stand up to the administration. Obviously, this is a HUGE cultural difference. If a company or school was paying late in the US, you bet we’d all say something.
Sure, I felt a bit guilty about being the ONLY employee who was paid on time, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.
You Have Legal Rights and the Upper Hand
Firstly, it’s important to remember that you have legal rights in China. Contracts are taken extremely seriously here, and if you’re not paid on time, you actually have the legal right to leave your job with no notice (depending on your contract… more on that later). Your school also legally has to let your switch schools if they break the contract, and if they refuse, you can involve the police (more on that later too).
In addition to legal backing, you also have the upper hand. According to the Bureau of Foreign Experts Affairs, as of 2016, the current Chinese market needs at least 100,000 foreign teachers while there are only 30,000 legally recognized teachers in Mainland China.
Obviously, there are plenty of teachers working illegally to help close the gap, but STILL. So many people don’t realize the power they hold in China. The school needs you more than you need them. You can always switch to another school legally if they break your contract by not paying you on time. You hold the power in this situation.
Leaving Your School Because They Don’t Pay
While my situation was able to be reconciled, I do have a few friends that have actually chosen to leave over issues of payment. I had two friends teaching at a technical college in Cangzhou, who were a solid month behind in payment. They would get their salaries weeks late, to the point that they were actually missing two months salary.
The two of them had asked and asked multiple times, to no avail. However, the school refused to pay them on time and showed no signs of changing.
Eventually, the two of them were so sick of this, they staged a strike and refused to teach any classes until they were paid. The strike lasted one day until the school pulled them aside and decided that they had “irreconcilable differences”.
The two were paid for the full 6 months they worked and were given their free flight home. They also received half their contract completion bonus.
You Don’t Have to Leave China if Your School Doesn’t Work Out
Obviously, none of us ever plan on leaving China early, but the two of them were so fed up with this school that they decided to go back home after 6 months. I understand why they made that decision, but the two of them definitely could’ve switched jobs legally if they really wanted to stay.
If you’re in a position where your school is NOT paying on time and you don’t see this ever improving, you CAN leave your school for another job with zero penalties, and your school MUST legally let you leave.
What to Do if Your School Doesn’t Pay On Time
If you’re in a position where your school is not paying you on time, firstly, I want to say that I’m so sorry this is happening to you. You’re not alone in this (I’ve been there before), but just know that this is not normal or okay, and you’re within your rights to do something about it.
Here are the steps you need to take if your school is behind on paying you:
1. Look At Your Contract
The most important step is completely understanding your contract. What does your contract say about payment? Do they have a specific date set in the contract like mine did? Ideally, your job should have a specific payment date or payment week.
If for some reason you contract says something about you getting paid on a “specific date chosen by the school” each month, you’re still within your rights to complain, however, the wording makes your situation a little less clear.
If your contract says nothing about payment dates, that is definitely not ideal. However, I still think you should talk to your company and ask them to specify a specific date or payment week (ex: the third Friday of the month).
Be sure to also read about what happens if the school breaks the contract. Typically there is a section about the rights of the teacher if the school refuses to follow through on the contract. You may be able to leave with no notice, or you might have to wait a few weeks, but either way, you’re free if they don’t follow through.
2. Approach Your Manager
Take your contract to whoever is in charge, usually a manager, foreign teacher liaison, or head teacher. Show the contract to this person, and casually broach the subject of not getting paid on time in a friendly, but clear manner.
If your contract has a specific date, this will be very helpful. If not, you need to ask them to give you a specific time frame and say that the erratic payment isn’t acceptable to you. You can ask them to amend your contract if necessary.
If your manager doesn’t seem to care, just be more firm like I was. Mention that they’re breaking the contract, and this is unacceptable. Make it clear that it is very important to you that you’re paid on time, or on a consistent schedule.
3. Ask a Second Time
If nothing is done, bring it up again and be very firm. Say that this is unacceptable, and something must be done about the payment issue. Let them know that if nothing is done, you will be getting in touch with HR/ a higher school official/ your recruiter.
4. Contact a Higher Authority
If nothing is done about your payment, follow through and contact someone with more authority. This could be the head of the HR department at a large company, a head official at your school, or the recruiter who helped you find a job.
Remember, if you used a recruiter to help you find a job in China, they will typically help you mediate issues like this. Any good teach abroad program (aka not the one I used) will also help with this. Good recruiters and Teach Abroad Programs will typically refuse to send more teachers to schools that don’t pay on time, so schools will take the involvement of a recruiter or program very seriously.
When you contact this higher authority, make it very clear that you will be leaving the school if this is not rectified. Point out where the school has broken the contract and mention that you’re within your rights to leave with minimal notice if the other party breaks the contract.
5. Follow Through and Quit
At this point, if nothing is done, you’ll want to start applying to other jobs and put in notice at your current job. Be sure to fully understand your rights according to your contract. Some contracts will let you leave immediately, others will have you wait a few weeks before you’re allowed to leave.
It’s up to you to decide if you want to stay in China or go home. If you do decide to stay in China (which you should!), then you CAN legally switch to another school without leaving the country. Either way, you’re entitled to any back pay, but if you do decide to go home, your school must pay for your flight home since THEY broke the contract.
How to Switch to Another School
If your school is not paying you on time, follow the steps outlined in your contract and decide on a final day. You should not lose out on any sort of salary or benefits from the school if THEY broke your contract. However, if you’re switching to a new school, don’t expect the old school to fly you home.
Once a date is settled, you will need a Release Letter from your current school. This letter allows the new school to switch your residence permit to their school without leaving the country.
Need help finding a new job? Here are a few schools I recommend.
1. Get Your Release Letter
Your current school MUST get you your Release Letter before your final day (if not earlier). If the school is dragging their feet or refusing to give you a letter, you’re entitled to go to the local police and lodge a complaint. If you’re paid by direct deposit, it will be easy to prove that you were not paid on time and the school is in violation of the contract.
Just bring your work contract, passport with your residence permit, and any other documents, like your police registration form.
The government is sick of schools not following the rules, and police typically take the side of the teacher in this situation. Once the police are involved, you should have your Release Letter within a week.
2. Switching Your Employment Officially
Once you have your Release Letter, your new school has 30 days to switch your employment legally. If for some reason your old school hangs onto the Release Letter too long (which isn’t allowed), or your new school can’t get the paperwork done in time, you can temporarily switch to an L Visa without leaving the country.
3. Getting an L Visa
If the school switch is taking too long, your new school should take you to the local Foreign Experts Bureau where you can apply for a temporary L Visa, which gives you an extra 30 days. You can do this at the bureau without leaving the country, and the visa itself is very cheap (although your new school should probably pay for this).
If for some reason your new school needs LONGER than 30 days, you will have to leave the country and then apply for a new work visa in Hong Kong or at home.
What if I’m Not Working Legally?
For those of you who are working on tourist or business visas, there are obviously some major differences.
Unfortunately, if you’re not working legally, you have no legal standing in China. Sure, you can get in touch with your school about not being paid, but you can’t go to the police.
Personally, I would follow all of the steps outlined above, and if they just refuse to pay you, I would leave and move to a new school in another city. It might mean forfeiting some pay, but it’s better than getting the police involved or being deported.
Your school could try and come after you, but they can’t really do this without implicating themselves. Remember, they’re the ones who hired you illegally in the first place!
What if My School is Withholding Money?
If you’ve begun the process of switching to another school and your old school is holding a month or two (or three) of your salary, you are within your legal rights to sue the school.
Personally, what I would do is go to the police station with all of your documents and let them know what happened. The police should be able to step in and scare your school into paying you.
However, the official course of action you’re supposed to take is to sue your school for the money. Personally, I don’t think hiring a lawyer is worth the hassle in China, especially since you’ll probably lose. However, you can totally THREATEN your school with a lawsuit and tell them your Chinese friend has hired you a lawyer. This may actually scare them into paying you.
If for some reason your school has gone under, or they just don’t have the money to pay you, I would cut your losses and leave. It’s not ideal, but fighting a Chinese school in a Chinese court is not something you want to be doing unless there’s a whole group of you, and someone else is organizing the lawsuit.
How Do I Make Sure This Doesn’t Happen to Me??!!
If you’re still applying for jobs in China, please do not worry too much about this. This is something that definitely happens to some of us, (including me!), but it’s not normal or expected. I’ve had plenty of jobs, including my old College Counseling job, that always paid on time with no problem.
That said, I do recommend taking a few steps to protect yourself.
1. Read Your Contract!!
Be sure you fully understand your contract. Is there a date they’re supposed to pay employees? What happens if the school breaks the contract? What happens if the school treats you unfairly or you hate your job and want to leave early? Be sure you COMPLETELY understand your contract.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Negotiate Your Contract
You can totally negotiate your contract in China. If there’s a section you don’t like or that’s not specific enough, ask them to re-write that portion. If they don’t have a specific payment date, ask them to add it in.
3. Read The Reviews
Be sure to google your company or school and read the reviews. Look for major red flags, like schools not paying on time or treating employees horribly. Expect minor complaints, but if the same major issues come up again and again, maybe look somewhere else.
If you’re applying to a public school that doesn’t have any reviews, look for reviews on the specific recruiter or teach abroad program you used to find the job. Recruiters and Teach Abroad Programs should step in to make sure you’re not scammed or taken advantage of. Their reputation is on the line after all.
Join the China Teach Abroad Community on Facebook!
If you’re teaching in China or thinking about making the move, be sure to join the China Teach Abroad Community Facebook Group!
Whether you’re struggling with a school that’s scamming you, or just need to ask a few questions about what to pack, this group is for you! It’s a great, warm, supportive community of past, present, and future teachers in China, and we can’t wait to welcome you!
Just be sure to answer the questions on the group application form, otherwise, I can’t let you in.
Any Questions or Concerns?
This is a HUGE topic, and every teach abroad disaster is a little bit different. If you have any major questions or concerns or need help with a specific problem, PLEASE feel free to leave me a comment below and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
I also highly recommend asking your question in the Facebook Group, since I’m literally on there helping out every day.
Do you have any horror stories about your school not paying on time? What did you do?