Section I: Teaching English in China continued
The subject of contract renewal for foreign teachers in China is actually a fairly complex one because of China’s entirely unique socioeconomic position as a free-market economy within the context of a communist government that is still heavily influenced by traditional Confucian values of duty and obedience.
Prior to China’s gradual 20-year transition into a market economy that commenced around 1979, the country operated exclusively on what was a centrally-planned economy. An essential component of this economic system was the dān wèi or socialist work unit. If a worker was fortunate enough to land a job in a government-owned enterprise, his or her position within that company’s specific work unit was essentially guaranteed for life in what has been referred to as the “iron rice bowl.”
In addition, salaries within work units were basically the same across employees: If you knew what someone did, i.e., which work unit he or she was attached to, you also knew exactly how much he or she was earning. This is to say that, historically in China, labor has never been a negotiable commodity. Increases in salary were not based on the quality of individual performance but, instead, were eventually earned by being assigned to a higher position with more responsibility in the company, and that was essentially determined on the basis of seniority alone. Restated, an increase in salary was not associated with work performance but, rather, with an increase in responsibility and production (just as long as it met some arbitrary minimum standard), and that promotion was always associated with years of service, not performance.
Although China has been a member of the World Trade Organization since 2001 and maintains something resembling a free-market economy (in that Beijing influences its economy through politically-motivated administrative fiat rather than pro-market measures), the political system that supports it has not been democratized. Consequently, human resources management and the country’s entire salary and promotion system are still in their infancy from a Western perspective. Virtually all Chinese employers still maintain the mind-set acquired from the days of the “jobs for life” system, where workers were expected to express their good fortune at having a permanent job by being compliant, not asking for anything beyond what was given, and finding comfort in the fact that if they remained loyal, patient, and cooperative for many years, they would be rewarded in time.
A recent online survey conducted by ChinaHR.com, a major employment website, revealed just how pervasive this old work unit mentality is in China today. More than 26 percent of the study’s respondents indicated that they had not asked for a raise because they feared they had overestimated their individual worth to the company; 22 percent reported that they were waiting for a colleague to ask first so that they could see how the boss reacted and, most interesting of all, almost one in ten indicated that they were afraid that if they asked for a raise, the boss would think that they were unhappy and were only asking because they were thinking of changing jobs. Related, almost 43 percent admitted to not asking for a raise because they anticipated being rejected and, thus, losing considerable face (Wu, 2007).
With a clear understanding of the pertinent history and employment mentality of the Chinese at hand, we can now apply these to the specific question of contract renewal for foreign teachers in China. Obviously, the following material will generally not apply to schools that are both Western owned and operated as a completely different set of human resources practices and procedures will be adhered to.
From a cultural perspective, the Chinese strongly subscribe to the old adage that a bird in hand is better than two in a bush, i.e., they much prefer staying with a known entity as opposed to taking a chance on someone who might look better on paper but prove to be very disappointing in reality, especially in regard to foreign teachers. From this perspective, incumbent foreign teachers who have done a reasonably decent job and haven’t caused any trouble do have a clear and distinct advantage over new applicants when the staffing requirements are being considered for the following academic year.
However and unfortunately, whether it is explicit or not, most Chinese employers still view their employees, including foreign teachers, from the mind-set of the old socialist work unit: You are fortunate to have a job with us, so be compliant, be quiet, and just go along for the good of the team. “Going along for the good of the team” might mean agreeing to be a judge in an English contest with little or no compensation, tackling extra classes or engaging in overtime for unspecified or reduced hourly rates, participating in a day-long photo or commercial shoot for no extra pay, and not asking for very much (or anything) beyond what has already been provided.
Consequently, in China, an excellent result in terms of contract renewal is simply being able to maintain the same benefits and conditions you enjoyed the previous year, i.e., keeping your job without having to agree to more work or responsibility for the same pay. In fact, our collective experience has shown that if a foreign teacher was, for whatever reason, brought in at a starting salary significantly higher than that of the other teachers (e.g., in the case of someone who holds an advanced degree or had initially agreed to provide services in addition to teaching), most of that teacher's efforts and energy, during contract renewal negotiations, will be directed towards struggling to hold onto the status quo.
As discussed in the previous section, the human resources convention of providing employees with an automatic annual salary or cost-of-living increase is purely a Western one, although, in response to rising consumer prices, nine specific guidelines for salary and pay raise reform were drafted and proposed by the Human Resources and Social Securities Ministry in 2008 (Kang, et. al, 2008).
Despite such efforts at salary reform, wages are, overall, relatively static in China and in 2006—in anticipation of Beijing's plan to appreciate the renminbi by 17 percent over the next two years—the government cut all starting foreign teacher salaries at public schools and universities by approximately 10 percent; travel allowances, in some cases, were slashed by as much as 50 percent (although those hired prior to 2006 were "grandfathered-in").
As unpleasant as this is to write, the reality is that, by and large, foreign English teachers have very little (if any) negotiating power during contract renewal time, especially—but not exclusively—in areas where White English-speaking foreigners are plentiful. From a Western perspective, one would think that—in the absence of any unreasonable or excessive demands—the school would do anything it could to retain a teacher who has performed well and is positively regarded by his students and colleagues, but that is simply not the case in China. That might be true if our roles here as foreign English language teachers were deemed as important by educational leaders and school owners, but they are not. For the most part, we are simply viewed as meeting a national requirement or as a costly business expense, and that is a reality you should keep in mind if you would like to remain at your current school for another year.
The only real exceptions to this rule would be in the relatively rare cases of foreign teachers who are both desperately needed and also considered very difficult to replace. Examples of this might include an IELTS examiner who is at the core of a private school’s successful IELTS program in a fairly undesirable part of China or, perhaps, a foreign professor who is teaching required professional courses at an international school, such that it would be very difficult to replace him with a Chinese teacher who can teach those same courses in English well enough to satisfy the needs of their foreign students. Generally speaking, foreign teachers hired simply to teach oral English are not difficult to replace—especially in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown in the Western world. Strong anecdotal evidence coming in from various school owners around the country suggests that the overall quality of foreign applicants has approved considerably over the past academic year and the cost of replacing a teacher would rarely exceed whatever salary increase was being sought by an incumbent teacher, e.g., current teacher is asking for a 500 yuan per month increase over a ten month contract but it doesn’t cost anywhere near 5000 yuan to replace that foreign teacher with someone who has equal or better qualifications and ability.
For the aforementioned reasons, the most the majority of foreign English teachers can hope for, in regard to contract renewal negotiations, are preferential changes in class scheduling, specific or contiguous days off, or an upgrade to a nicer school-owned accommodation, i.e., changes that don't necessarily cost the school any more money.
Most private English language schools, and quite a few public schools as well, include a stipulation within the SAFEA contract addendum that requires the foreign teacher to provide advanced notification of intent to either stay or leave within a fixed period of time, e.g., three months prior to the expiration date. If your contract addendum includes such a provision, you should honor it with the following caveat in mind.
Notwithstanding a contractual obligation to inform, some foreign English teachers are reticent to provide the school with advanced notice, either way, from a strategic perspective. If their intention is to leave, they fear that they will somehow be cheated or abused if this is known too soon and, if their intention is to renew, they believe that they'll lose some sort of bargaining power if they commit to this decision too early.
This question of proper timing, as well as approach, is one that really needs to be answered by each individual foreign teacher on a case-by-case basis.
When you view this issue in the context of China’s sociocultural history and the former job-for-life system, historically, leaving an employer was virtually unheard of and, even today, it’s a course of action that is still looked down upon as an indication of ingratitude and dissension among the ranks. Therefore, if your intent is to leave at the end of your contract and you are working for a private language school that is owned or managed by Chinese, it is best to clearly identify some external force beyond your control as the principal reason for your pending departure, e.g., “I’m so sorry, I want to stay but my mother is sick and my father has told me I must return home when my contract has finished” or “I really wish I could stay but my allergies have been terrible this past year and the doctors told me I need to move to a (warmer, colder, drier, more humid) climate.” Even if the owner suspects that you are lying (and even if the explanation doesn’t make a great deal of sense [see chapter on Mianzi and Guanxi]), this face-giving strategy will be greatly appreciated in that it assures the owner that you are not leaving because you are unhappy, i.e., you have no intention of “making trouble.” In most cases, it doesn’t matter how early you inform a public school or university that you will not be renewing your contract because no one is personally invested in the outcome aside, perhaps, from the inconvenience of having to replace you. Nevertheless, you should still employ the same face-giving strategy in regard to one’s immediate supervisors and managers—especially in light of the fact that you will need a letter of recommendation from your current employer in order for the next one to apply for your subsequent residency permit.
If your intention is to renew your contract, an effective strategy is to notify the school of your intent before such time that they may start considering new applicants and to do so concomitantly with a request for some relatively minor concession or perk, e.g., “I really like it here and would like to stay but I was hoping that I could have two consecutive days off instead of Monday and Thursday.” The purpose of asking for something relatively minor at the same time you indicate your intention to renew is that it will help to offset or later balance the school’s natural inclination to request more work or time for the same money. Either they will respond by granting the concession(s) in exchange for requesting slightly more work or time (in that your request will be responded to as a negotiation), or they will simply deny your additional request(s) and then view that refusal as the price they must pay for renewing at the same terms, i.e., how can we ask for more if we are not willing to give anything back? As stated earlier, it is highly unlikely any request for a raise or costly improvement to the school-provided housing will be seriously considered unless it is directly associated with increased profit, production, or responsibility, e.g., promotion to head teacher, additional responsibility for managing the school's website, etc.
As soon as you and the school have agreed to renew the contract, quite simply, you need to get it in writing, i.e., you need to gently but firmly insist that the renewed contract be signed as soon as possible. If the school delays in presenting you with a written renewal or says something like “The leader who needs to sign the contract is out-of-town and won’t be back until July” (one week before your current contract expires), you most likely cannot count on anything that has been agreed to, especially if the school had verbally promised to provide you with something extra or had agreed to some concession. Unfortunately, it is not unheard of in China for foreign teachers to be given verbal reassurances in the form of “I think everything is okay,” or “that sounds reasonable,” and, then, be handed a written contract that contains not one word of what was verbally promised two months earlier when they still had time to seek employment elsewhere.
If you can manage to renew your contract at the previous year’s workload-to-salary ratio while simultaneously negotiating an improvement or two in working or living conditions, you will have emerged from the process a lot better than many foreign teachers do.