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.

But my firm’s China employment lawyer, Grace Yang, has convinced me that I need to write something on China employment law, if only to highlight how complicated and localized it truly is. With that in mind, I have chosen this article to focus on something that should be pretty simple: the hourly workweek.

I am constantly reminded of the localization of China’s employment laws whenever I take on a new China employment law project. At the end of one year/beginning of another year is when I always get a slew of emails from companies doing business in China with questions about their employees and an even greater number of emails 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 (and free) 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 am a long time reader of your blog and I now finally need your help. I work for a US WOFE 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 really 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 maybe in the future they can 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 be able 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 and 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, especially now when the Chinese government is particularly concerned with how employment is not very robust in China these days.