Do you check your employment contracts? A company in Shenzhen wasn’t careful in checking theirs and it had to pay an employee nearly 150,000 RMB as contract damages for unpaid wages and an additional nearly 3,000 RMB for overtime compensation. In the end, this company had to pay this one employee nearly 50 times more than what was actually owed. Before I discuss this case and what you should do to prevent the same thing from happening to you, let’s quickly review relevant China employment laws.
An employee can demand its employer pay damages pursuant to the parties’ employment agreement. The law only imposes restrictions on employers imposing contract damages (similar to and called liquidated damages in some countries) on their employees, but an employee can collect contract damages from an employer under certain circumstances. At the time of termination, unless there is a law to the contrary, the employee can demand contract damages in addition to the applicable statutory severance. But again, be careful, this is just the general law in Guangdong province and there may be exceptions and, as is pretty much always true when dealing with China employment laws, there are local variances.
Now back to the case I mentioned above. In that case, the Shenzhen employer and the employee entered into an employment contract under which the employer agreed to pay its employee 50 times any missed/miscalculated base salary and overtime pay. In other words, for every Yuan the employer is short in wage payments, the employee must be paid 50 RMB as a penalty. When the employment relationship went awry, the employee sued and sought nearly 150,000 RMB in contract damages for having been shorted a bit under 3,000 RMB owed to him. The trial court sided with the employer on this claim, concluding that this damages provision did not comply with the employment law and the amount far exceeded the actual amount owed to the employee. It then applied a “fair” standard for damages and ordered the employer to pay the owed wages plus an additional 25% of those wages as damages.
The employee appealed, arguing that the trial court had no legal basis for its ruling. The employee argued that the employer intentionally included this damages clause in the employment contract to make the job look more enticing and it would not be fair to allow the employer to be released from a contractual obligation it had created. The employee also argued that China’s freedom of contract laws called for enforcing the contract.
The Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court determined the damages clause did not violate any mandatory laws or social interests and it reflected the parties’ true intent. The employer was the more powerful party and the employee an ordinary worker with only minimal bargaining power. The contract damages provision was therefore enforceable against the employer and the employee was entitled to the full amount of contract damages.
If the Shenzhen employer had been careful about what it allowed into this employment contract it could have avoided this penalty altogether. Our China employment lawyers regularly audit the employment records of foreign employers in China and this means we frequently see employment contract provisions that heavily favor the employee. One of the most common things we see is for the English to say one thing (that’s good for the employer) and the Chinese to say another (that’s good for the employee). This is a problem because the Chinese language controls.
Do your employment contracts contain a “surprise” clause that would potentially expose you to unwanted liabilities? Now is the time to check to make sure.