China Employment Law: Local and Not So Simple

Many years ago, Dan Harris of my law firm wrote a Forbes Magazine article (China’s Hourly Work Week: Think Locally) on how China’s employment laws had become so localized. Dan started that article with the following explanation:

I have avoided writing on China employment law because it is so complicated and so localized. My fear has been that any single article can only scratch the surface.

I am constantly reminded of the localization of China’s employment laws whenever my law firm takes on a new China employment law project. At the end of one year/beginning of another year, we always get a slew of emails from companies doing business in China with questions about their employees and from employees with questions about their employment situation, usually involving their wanting to move on to a different employee.

The employees oftentimes want us to give them a quick answer to their questions, not realizing how complicated they really are.

Here is an example of a typical email we receive from employees, with changes made to hide any identifiers:

I work for a US wfoe and I have a residence permit and I pay my taxes. In other words, I am doing everything right. Some time ago, a _________ company asked me to collaborate as a volunteer for them one day a week. I am interested in this company and what they do and so I have the following quick questions for you. Would it be a legal problem if I do this once a week for free? Do I need a certificate or document saying that I am working with them because I want to help people? Do I need approval from my existing employer to do this extra work? They also tell me that they might be able to give me some money for the collaboration. Again, would that be a problem with my current job?

We usually respond to these with something like the following:

China’s employment laws and regulations vary from city to city and they depend on the specific situation and for us to give you anything resembling actionable advice we would need to know all the facts of your situation, especially the city (or cities) you are discussing, then review the contract you have with your employer, then research the applicable laws and regulations in the relevant city (ies?), and then discuss these laws and regulations with the appropriate governmental authorities.

Not sure why, but we get more requests for answers to “quick” or “simple” questions relating to China employment law than to any other legal issue. I have written this post to try to spread the word that there are very few routine answers when it comes to Chinese employment law.