English Teachers in China Being Exploited by Rogue Agencies and Schools

What began as a dream transformed slowly into a nightmare. Vanessa Wachtmeister had moved to China to work as an English teacher on the back of promises made by her agency. They assured her that the process would be easy and seamless, and that she’d have the experience of her life teaching in the Far East. It ended with her leaving her apartment at the dead of night, changing her phone number, and paying $3,000 USD for a student visa to make sure the agency couldn't trap her in the country for violating her contract.

Such cases are becoming all the more common as China struggles to fill the 100,000+ English teaching positions that have been sprouting up across the country. Since the major economic boom of the early 2000’s, the country’s position as a global player has lead to an increased demand for fluent English speakers, given it’s usage within international trade.

And where there’s demand, there must be supply.

Why is this a problem?

Thousands of schools have been popping up all over the country to serve cosmopolitan parents who want their children to be educated primarily in English. In 2016, it was estimated that the Chinese ESL (English as a Second Language) Industry was worth over $5B. It has only risen since then.

Of the available 100,000 English teaching positions in China, it is estimated that only a third of them are filled. While government rules stipulate that any person wanting to teach English in China must have a bachelor’s degree, as well as either a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Certificate or 2+ years experience, the lack of qualified teachers has lead to an increasing number of schools and agencies engaging in malpractice that is often both morally and legally corrupt.

What are the agencies doing wrong?

At the base level, a number of agencies and English schools in China are allowing candidates to apply for positions that don’t meet the government’s criteria. Because they know they won’t pass the legalisation process to get a work permit, the candidates are often encouraged to apply for a tourist or business visa instead, and brought to the country to start working illegally without their knowledge. It is an experience Vanessa is all too familiar with.

“I was told that everything would be very easy and seamless, but my experience of moving to China was very complicated. The agency wanted me to work on a tourist visa until my z-visa was approved which I found out later is totally illegal.”

How are the agencies getting away with it?

To circumvent the government’s rules, the candidates are often not officially ‘employed’ by either the school or the company, and rather work as interns, while fulfilling all the same duties a legally employed teacher would. They usually don’t receive any official salary either, only a ‘living allowance’, although a number of teachers have reported being paid with cash stuffed envelopes to avoid being listed as an employee.

While Vanessa never received a paycheck from the company she was working for, the idea doesn’t surprise her.

“This is very ‘Chinese’” according to Vanessa. “There are loads of grey areas that are used to justify working without a proper visa.”

Contract wording can also be iffy, and agencies often break contract without informing their candidates, paying them late, or denying sick days. By the time the teachers discover they are working illegally, they have no recourse and risk deportation if they break their contract.

Why are the English schools in China allowing this to happen?  

As mentioned earlier, English schools in China are struggling to fill positions due to the massive rise in demand for English language teachers. As such, some schools are willing to employ lesser qualified teachers, and even non-native English speakers, even though they’re fully aware of the illegality of this practice. With parents willing to pay up to three times more for their children to be educated by a foreigner, many of them believe it is worth the risk.

Vanessa’s experience highlights how prestigious the image of a foreigner is to English schools in China.

“I am Latina, so I was ‘light enough’ for schools to choose me. It was well-known that any light-skinned or white candidates would be prioritized above the darker skinned teachers. Also, British and American accents were prioritized over other accents.”

English Schools in China also have an aversion to dealing with foreigners themselves, due to the complicated nature of the visa process for an ESL teacher in China. Since the school would have to apply for the right to sponsor an individual for their z-visa, they often rely on agencies to bring in the teachers for them, and turn a blind eye to whether the teachers are actually qualified to teach or not.

However, many individuals report being asked to lie about their credentials by their agencies to be able to take up their positions, so in some cases schools aren’t even aware that the teachers they’re employing don’t fit their criteria. And agencies don’t do very much to prepare their candidates for the roles they’ll be taking up, even when their websites offer “full orientation and training”.

“I received a weekend of training” says Vanessa, who had a bachelor’s degree but no teaching experience when she arrived in China. “Then I was put in front of many schools for interviews with cards that I had made at the training facilities.”

With an agency able to decrease costs by up to 40% by employing illegally, and the potential for repercussions amounting to a small fine, it’s easy to see why they’d take the gamble.

What are the repercussions for working illegally?

The most common cases of deportation in China are for those working illegally without the proper work permit, as well as those overstaying their visas. Since those residing in China on tourist or business visas will have to leave the country every 3 months to ‘top up’ their stay, the potential for overstaying is large.

Moreover, if you are in China as a tourist, you will have to register with the local police department (if you’re staying at a hotel this will be done for you), which means they could check up on you at any time. If you are working illegally, it’s likely you’ll be deported, and will be unable to return to China for at least 2 years. The resulting black stamp on your passport could cause issues travelling to other destinations too, and many countries might even deny you a visa, putting potential future travel plans in ruin. Allied to the lower salaries and poor treatment many illegal teachers receive, it really isn’t worth the risk.

What is the correct procedure for an English teacher wishing to move to China?

While in the early days it was easy for anyone to move to China and start teaching English, since 2015, the government has put strict procedures in place to stem the flow of unqualified teachers into the country and improve educational standards.

The government requires all individuals wishing to teach English to:

  • Be a native English speaker  
  • Have a Bachelor’s degree
  • Have a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate, OR
  • A minimum of two years of teaching experience

The Degree and TEFL certificates will have to be legalised for use in China, which usually involves getting a stamp by the Foreign Affairs department in the issuing country, and then taking it to the Chinese Embassy. If the documents being legalised span more than one page, they will have to be notarised and sealed with a red ribbon (though the process may vary from country to country) before they will be accepted for legalisation. Further authorisation forms will also need to be filled in before the legalisation can be completed.

The legalised documents package makes up part of the supporting documents that you’ll need to acquire a Z-Visa, which also includes medical and criminal record checks, and proof from your future employer that your work application is valid. Ultimately, it’s up to you to ensure that the school or agency you’re going to work for is requesting the right documents, and following the correct procedures towards legal employment.

Get in Touch

If you’re an English Teacher wishing to move to China, we can assist. Look out for a future post that goes into greater detail on what the process of getting a Z-Visa involves, or if you need help right now, contact us. Simply visit our site and request a personalised quotation based on your requirements. You can also give us a call directly on +44 (0) 330 088 1142, send us a message via WhatsApp on mobile, use our live chat system, or e-mail us at sales@vitalconsular.com. Our friendly team of specialists are on hand to answer all of your queries.

English Schools In China Vanessa

Thanks to Vanessa Wachtmeister for her contributions to this blog. Vanessa is the Technical Launch Manager at Expedia Group in London and has been running the Wander Onwards blog since 2013. Follow her on social media using the links below.

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Ashraf Vachhiat
Ashraf Vachhiat

Ashraf is the Marketing Technologist at Vital Consular, which means he handles all the technicalities involved in bringing this blog to life! He also enjoys creating in-depth articles around current affairs which impact the travel and relocation industry. In his free time, Ashraf relishes travelling as much as possible, and is always looking for quirky spots to take some great photos.

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