Breaking your ESL contract in China

Obtaining a work visa in China has become considerably more difficult during the past few years. It is no longer possible in most places in China to have a tourist visa (L-visa) converted into a working permit. And while it used to be possible to have this processed in Hong Kong, the Chinese government is now requiring teachers to obtain the mandatory Z-visa in their countries of origin. In other words, the days of coming to China to have a look around first before deciding where to work are over.

The most important consequence of this ‘tightening up’ is that most teachers now have to sign contracts without having the chance to actually see where they will be teaching. This can really put teachers at a strong disadvantage because they are forced to trust that people whom they have never met are telling them the truth about a school that they have never visited.

As a result, I am receiving more reports than ever (through this website) of teachers who want to break their contracts after being here for just a few months. What they encounter is not what they expected and they want out.

But how easy is it to get out of your contract? And what are the possible consequences?

Technically, you can walk away from your place of employment and contract without worrying about being hunted down and thrown in jail. In fact, while the school can void your foreign expert certificate, your residence permit will still be valid until its expiration date. In other words, you don’t even necessarily need to leave China in a hurry.

However, there is one huge disadvantage to ditching your job here without the school’s blessing – you may have a very hard time finding another job in the near future.

In order to obtain another valid work permit for you, your new school will have to request that your old school(the one with which you broke the contract) provides an important document called ‘a letter of termination’. This letter basically releases you from your old school and makes it possible for your new school to proceed with filing for a new work permit. Without this letter, your new school will not be able to hire you.

It is very common for a disgruntled school to refuse to provide this termination letter. While the school can’t stop you from living in China they can make it very difficult for you to find a new job.

If you aren’t planning on teaching in China again in the near future, this doesn’t really matter. In fact, you could go home,wait until your current residence permit expires, and then apply for a new job in China. However, if you want to get another job right away, you need to find a better way to get out of your contract.

From my experience here, I have found that communication is the most important aspect of working here. If you are unhappy with your working situation, you need to go and talk to your boss or FAO about this. You may not like these people (they are often not very likable), but it can’t hurt to try. And sometimes, you may be pleasantly surprised by the response you receive.

I remember when I once wanted to get out of my contract. I was only 6 months in but I was really unhappy with the place where I was living. I wanted to go somewhere else and start fresh. I communicated this with my supervisor and while they weren’t thrilled with my plans, they were grateful that I was giving them enough time to find someone else. In the end, they allowed me to go and provided the necessary documents for my next place of employment.

If you have a family emergency or you are suffering from health problems, you will often find schools even more sympathetic to your request to leave.

What if the school refuses your request and threatens to prevent you from seeking future employment in China? In that case, you’ll have to make a tough decision. But if you have to go, you have to go. Ditching your job is always an option.

There is one important rule that you should always follow when teaching in China. Never let the school take possession of your passport. As long as you have your passport, the school can’t do anything to invalidate your residence permit.

Do you have experiences with breaking your contract in China? Please share with us in the comments section below.

The opinions and ideas expressed above were not written by a lawyer and not should be construed as legal advice. Every situation is different. Please do your own due diligence before making a decision. 

12 Responses to Breaking your ESL contract in China

  1. JB says:

    I’m on a contract with a Weifang school until August, however due to consistent breaches of contract, I’m planning to leave China. My flight is booked for March though (due to prices, I didn’t book sooner)… so my question is would I need to worry about the school coming after me? Or anything else? They cannot cancel my residence permit without my passport, correct? Also would I run into trouble when I am in process of leaving China?

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  2. France says:

    I want ask my boss said me “U will not be able to break the contract” I reply “Don’t worry i can pay money and wait until u will find a new teacher” he said me NO!!!!! U should stay here for another year and then i can say the OK to the governement IS IT POSSIBLE DO LIKE THIS?

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  3. Kel says:

    TOP school wont pay flights, reduced pay, etc, even though THEY BREACHED THE CONTRACT MANY TIMES not me!

    So… here it is in brief.

    My school breached 2 really clear parts of the contract (major items -not too mention lots of smaller items!). 1. providing the necessary working conditions and 2. At my request the school must provide support / asststance in the classroom as necessary (I begged for htis and got none. I also got told that I was bieng sensitive and ignored and a bunch of other stuff by the one person who i know was translating a different story to my director). She is also the main issue being that she is/was the person to support me was the same person who didnt support me then would abuse me over email and tell me they have never had such a bad teacher). Then I have to sit in meetings while she translates for me – I know she didnt portray any of it properly. Then, the there is even more little ones Im not even mentioning such as not being informed of class changes, being paid on time etc as there was only 2 months to go (now there is a week).

    Anyway, when things in the classroom got bad (really really bad behaviour not being dealt with because students parents have money, me being called fat and called very bad words in Chinese and English, studetns ignoring me, pushing past me, walking out on me in a TOP school (no. 1), nothign was done other then the above – told Its my fault I cant handle them! So, I refused to go to that class! They spent about 3 meetings all different people trying to get me to go and teach that class (I was still teachign the other class I have) JUST because there was a big exam coming up! Nobody ven asked me what happened – the last straw was a studnt spinnning a knife at me whilst threatening me/facial expressions. I knew I(didnt think she would do anything but it’s not the point! Anyway, I was thta shaken up and no support yet with the other class ZERO PROBLEMS. They love me!! The bad class was even asked thingis and lied and I was told theres too sides to every story!! YET HELLO?? I Was never asked what happened!! Ihad to sit through many meetings whilst instead of asking me how I was all they wanted was for me to get back into the classroom!! None of th estudents had even been punished and when they saw me thy would even laugh!! Had the school right where they wanted it! So ridiculous !! Anyway, The students knew that I could do nothing and saw they werent being punished so continued getting worse.i

    So basiclaly that was about 2 months ago and I stopped working. I shoudl have just walked out! But, I kept teacing one grade (that I had no issues with nor did they with me!). But now here we are.. they are only wanting to pay me half for last month and half for my final month here (end of contract). I wouldnt bother fighting that but now they WONT PAY MY FLIGHT… (the return)

    Help!! What should I do to tell the school they are breaching the lease without having to go through her to translate it ! She even reads the emails first! Nobody else can translate it so she could say whatever she wants!! Im sure the school doesnt know that she even woudl send me such abusive emails! Idiot.

    Apologies for the fast typing but i hope someone can help as to what to do urgently?

    Cheers!!

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  4. Liz says:

    Hi,
    Just wondering if anyone knwos what exaclty is meant by the contract whereby it states that if the employer breaches that the employee,I , can break the contract? So… I write a letter and then what? or how ? And then what happens then withthe relase? Also, there is another clause at the end saying that after mutual agreement cannot be sought I can apply to the commission arbitrary. But thats it, i can find no other information about how or what then?

    Thanks everyone.

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  5. Kelly says:

    Hey,

    I am actually in a situation where my company is breaking contract. I am on my second contract with them. The first year it was great and this time around it sucks. After I signed my contract they kept delaying giving me a copy. After a month when it came time to get paid my boss said “it’s in your new contract that you get paid at the end of the month”. I asked to see my original contract and she looked around the office and said “I think I lost it”! Wtf? She showed me a computer unsigned copy and the date change was only wrote in Chinese. Cheeky fuckers. Which at the time it happened I wasn’t too upset because I was hoping to switch to a better school. That fell through. My contract also says I should have two days off a week. I have worked six days a week since it started. It is only for an hour class but if they are going to be jerks I can use that as a breach in contract right? I never made a written agreement with them to work 6 days. It was a verbal agreement. Before I signed my new contract in the summer I started to work a lot more hours. My previous contract stated that I should get paid 80rmb for every hour over 80 hours a month. I just brought it to my boss’s attention that I might meet that mark. The owner flipped his lid and shouted many f-bombs at my face. He refused to pay me for about a 9 days. During Chinese New Year my owner went on an international vacation. He didn’t give my boss enough money to pay my full salary. It was short 2000 rmb. It took him two months to give it to me. Now here is my tipping point. When I signed my contract I KNOW we both agreed to the company buying me a one way ticket home. I know it! My boss was talking to me about my ticket and said “the contract agreement is you pay the taxes we pay the base price”. IT IS A LIE! I have not contract to back up my facts. I think if I ask to see an unsigned copy she will manipulate it. I hate this. My school is closing early too. My contract doesn’t legally finish until the last day in Oct but they want to change it to end in the summer. I agreed to it at first but we never made a legal written agreement about it. I am going to refuse to change the date and demand they pay me some compensation for breaking the contract. Does anyone have any advice on where I can read up on laws that protect us from shit employers like this?

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  6. Jonny says:

    It’s my first time in China and I’m not particularly enjoying my contract. I have another job offer outside China and I think I’ll take it. After that contract, I want to return to my home country to get my professional teachers’ certification so I can work in international schools, hopefully in China. If, three or four years down the road, I get hired for an international school in China and they go to process my work visa, RP, etc., will it be a problem that several years before I had ditched my teaching contract in China? Thanks

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  7. Mike says:

    I had to break my contract a few years ago in Fujian province. Now I’m being recruited by another school in another province. Do you think I will have any visa issues or work permit issues because of this incident three years ago?

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  8. angel says:

    BREAKING a contract is really tough! i had this experience in Jilin last year.Before I got there , i was promised with the best benefits ever but upon arrival, i felt i regretted coming over because what they promised did never exist but there was nothing I could do because I was already there.I challenged myself and I thought I could stand but after the end of class in June , I decided to run away, thinking it would be ok because anyway I finished the term and it was already summer vacation.Then, I got a new employment in Beijing.The big problem came up when it was time to renew my visa.My new employer asked my previous employer the “release paper ” an important document needed for the processing of my visa renewal,but my previous employer refused saying that i broke the contract ( in fact , there was NO FORMAL CONTRACT between me and this jilin employer )but they asked me to pay 5000 RMB for breaking the contract.I asked my embassy for help and they gave me a lawyer to deal with it , but the problem was that we were running out of time .I only had few days before my visa expires.The last decision I made was just to give them the 5000 rmb that they asked.Actually i should not pay that amount because i did not sign any contract ,meaning there was no contract broken ,,,,,,but i had to just for them to give me the release paper I needed.Thanks heaven ,”money talks” they sent me the release paper.

    I knew it for sure that if they did not give me this release paper,I would have been kicked out of the country as this is what Chinese employers do to people who are unhappy with them.They would never be concerned of you , they are heartless, they only think of making money from your efforts ,but they wont give you the right to complain, they only give you the right to obey and finish your term with them . That’s the chinese style of employment .

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    Robert Vance Reply:

    Interesting story, Angel. I’m especially interested in the lawyer part. Did the embassy provide this lawyer for you free of charge? And how much help did the lawyer actually give you?

    I don’t think they could have kicked you out of the country but they certainly could have made it very difficult for you to work here. Why was there no contract involved? Did they keep promising you a contract and then it never materialized?

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  9. Sean says:

    Sometimes it is not necesary to break your contract. A lot of places, especially private training “schools” have skeletons in their closet. Typical one is using illegal foreign labour. If you have access to reliable, outside Chinese help, you can get them to report the school to the PSB (government). They will send inspectors to check and yes they will bribe them but after about 8 or 9 times of this and it will get hectic for them and, if they don’t get closed down, they might just start being a bit more amicable towards you.
    Don’t think like a Westerner when dealing with Chinese. You will lose. If you want to fight them you will have to sink into the murky slime which is their level.

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  10. Steven Katz says:

    I had occasion to have to”ditch” a contract. With 5 months left I came down seriously ill. I spent almost a solid month in hospitals (3 of them) and had two surgeries.

    What made the situation so bad for me was that I was a teacher at a military college. I was living off the base with my family (also teachers) and at the same time my health deteriorated their contracts (and our lease) expired. My contract with the military provided me with an apartment on the base but it (a) was not fit for human habitation,(b) was a 5 floor walk up and (c) my family was not allowed to live there with me.

    The FAO, a Major in the Peoples Liberation Army, saw me in the hospital twice, and both times I was so physically weak I could not walk more than 3 meters without help. By not allowing my family to come onto the base and live with me (and take care of me while I recovered from the surgeries) they were putting me in a position where I would have to do that for myself – something I was physically too weak to do. This was essentially a death sentence.

    The army eventually let me out of the contract (the Release letter was signed and stamped in my hospital room) but it cost me. I literally worked for them for two months without pay and lost all bonuses.

    My family and I moved to a different city where they had found employment. It took me another month before I had the strength to walk around outside.

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  11. Vic Williams says:

    How about when the school breaks the contract?
    Or, fairly common around Guangzhou, you get the papers for the next school but the first school hasn’t put the special chop on them so they aren’t valid?
    Or money problems, I started with a school, as incoming head teacher to replace one leaving, and quickly had a flood, toilet overflow, in the school provided suite. We knew about the problem and they hadn’t fixed it yet. A guy two floors down said I caused 6000rmb damage to his TV, and the school boss said ‘pay or go’. I went to leave, somebody made a phone call, and the TV costs went somewhere else. Yeah, a squeeze play. Apparently I was too assertive so they got rid of me.

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