In late 2017, an old and yet important set of China Employment laws —the Measures for Severance Payment due to Violation or Termination of Employment Contracts — issued by the then-Ministry of Labor back in 1995 was abolished by the PRC Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. Since our China employment lawyers keep getting questions regarding the impact of this change I am writing this post to provide some clarification.
The short answer is that there are no significant changes. The fundamentals of China’s employment laws have not changed. China is still NOT an employment at will jurisdiction and its employment laws remain very local.
The old Measures provided guidance on how to calculate statutory severance. They had some special rules for calculating severance payments, including (1) how a 12-month cap on severance would apply to mutual terminations or terminations for incompetence, (2) how severance was to be calculated using the average monthly wage for the 12 months prior to termination under “normal productions conditions,” and (3) how to calculate severance for employees terminated after various leaves of absence, for employees with contracts that can no longer be performed due to major changes surrounding execution of the employment contract, and for mass layoffs.
Before these Measures were abolished, many Chinese arbitrators and judges held that they had already been partially annulled because they conflicted with the China’s Employment Contract Law, but the legal outcomes on this issue were inconsistent.
When China’s Employment Contract Law took effect on January 1, 2008, it made clear that for terminated employment contracts severance payments under Article 46 of this Law shall be calculated based on the number of years of employment from the implementation date of this Law. The basic rule under the Employment Contract Law is that for each year (which is any period longer than 6 months) an employee has worked for the employer, he or she is entitled to one month’s wages in severance. For any period of employment of less than 6 months, the employee is entitled to half a month’s wages. If an employee’s monthly wage exceeds 300% of the local average monthly wage for the preceding year, the local average can be used to calculate the severance payment. In this situation, the number of years of service used to calculate statutory severance is capped at 12 years.
But the Employment Contract Law left open how to deal with an employee whose employment started before January 1, 2008. Before the mentioned Measures were annulled they were still technically in effect and this created several different methods for calculating severance. Subject to varying local employment laws, the specific method depended on: (1) the employee’s years of service with the particular employer; (2) how much time the employee put in working for the particular employer before January 1, 2008; (3) the employee’s average monthly wage during the 12 months before the employment contract ended or was terminated; and (4) the basis on which the employment relationship terminated or ended.
Not much has changed with the annulment of the Measures, though as is pretty much always the case with China’s employment laws, many of the specific changes (and lack of changes) will vary depending on the locale in which the employer is located.
Suppose the Measures were still effective and the employer’s locale does not have different local rules. An employee who worked for her employer since June 1, 1995 is terminated pursuant to a mutual termination agreement signed on January 1, 2018, According to China’s employment laws, the employee must receive severance. How do you calculate this employee’s severance if her average monthly wage during the 12 months prior to termination was greater than 300% of the local average monthly wage for the preceding year? If you apply the rules within the Measures, you would divide it into 2 periods in calculating the severance: (1) for the period before January 1, 2008, at her average monthly wage during the 12 months prior to the termination multiplied by 12 (because it would be subject to a 12-month cap); and (2) for the period after January 1, 2008, the severance would be 300% of the local average monthly wage for the preceding year multiplied by 10.
After annulment of these Measures the severance calculations under the above scenario do not change much. You still must divide it into 2 periods. Period one is the period before January 1, 2008 and her severance for that period would be calculated using her average monthly wage during the 12 months prior to her termination, multiplied by 13 (since the 12 month cap no longer applies); for period two, the period from January 1, 2008, her severance would be 300% of the local average monthly wage for the preceding year multiplied by 10. As you can see, in this scenario, the annulment of the Measures will increase the employee’s severance by 1 month at the average monthly wage during the 12 months prior to termination.
So at the end of the day, the most important factors for calculating severance payments are still how much the employee made during the 12 months prior to termination and when the employee started working for the employer. And of course, what your local employment rules say as well.
But whenever our China employment lawyers deal with China employment severance situations, our advise is usually not to get too bogged down with the severance amount because by far the most important thing is to make sure your termination is lawful. If you lack a legal basis (again, both under China’s national employment laws and under the local laws that apply to your specific business) for the termination there is little point in spending time calculating whether you have applied all the applicable severance caps.
And it is in the termination itself where our China employment lawyers most often see the big mistakes. Far too often foreign companies doing business in China terminate employees without a legal basis to do so. The easiest and safest way to terminate a China-based employee will almost always be via a mutual termination, using the minimum statutory severance as a starting point in your settlement discussions with your departing employee. When dealing with a mutual termination situation, paying the employee more than the minimum statutory severance does not invalidate the mutual termination agreement and doing so often makes sense as a way to secure a fast and relatively amicable resolution.