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Breaking Your Contract in China: New Consequences for Pulling a “Midnight Run”

Anyone who has lived in China, especially those in the ESL field, might recognize this scenario: You show up to work ready to start the day but notice your boss in a frenzy, frantically dialing digits on the phone hoping to get a response from your co-worker who just so happens did not show up that day or provide anyone with a valid absence excuse. After a day or two of being MIA, it’s a safe bet that you’ll most likely never see your disappeared colleague ever again, because he or she probably pulled the infamous “midnight run”—grabbing your paycheck and leaving the company before the contract ends without telling a soul. While breaking your contract in China had very few repercussions in the past, times have changed and the government has now issued new measures to dissuade foreigners from breaking contracts and punishing those that do. Before you or someone you know decides to pull a midnight run, here is some information you should know concerning the edicts of breaching your employment contract in China.

Consequences for expats breaching their contracts

There are some new rules to the game that you should take into consideration before breaking your contract via midnight run. As of February 1, 2013, the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA) now has an online database where companies can put the personal information (including nationality and passport number) of foreign employees who’ve breached their contracts. (Click here to see a sample list of midnight running expats). Major breaches of privacy aside, having your information on this list will also red flag your name with other companies looking to hire you and seriously damage your credibility. Furthermore, if the company reports you, they can have you blacklisted from China for three years or more if they’re really looking to seek revenge. In the worst-case scenario, which might be more prevalent with major corporations rather than ESL institutions, a lawsuit can be filed. Though law suits are much less common in China than they are in the West, they’re definitely the last place a foreigner wants to be since, as China Law Blog warns, foreigners tend to do “poorly” in Chinese courts when facing contract disputes.

How to switch from one company to another

The good news is switching companies within China, even if it means leaving your contract early, is possible and relatively hassle-free as long as you didn’t burn any bridges. According to TeachAbroadChina.com, to switch ESL jobs you need a letter from your previous company stating that you no longer work there anymore (aka “release letter”), your personal medical examination results and the foreign expert certificate; all of which your ex-boss should have and lawfully provide. Once your new company has these documents, they should be able to do the rest to maintain your Z Visa and keep you in the country legally. However, if you leave on bad terms your old company can very well refuse, delay the transfer and/or “accidently lose” any of these vital documents. If this occurs, it will be very difficult for you to get a new Z Visa and hypothetically hinder your employment status at your new job. It could also be expensive by forcing you to pay for a new medical examination and make another visa trip to Hong Kong or your home country.

How to professionally quit your job

There are a number of reasons people decide to break their contract. Some of the most obvious range from personal health issues to family emergencies back home. Reasons like these should be deemed as tolerable excuses since your boss should understand the inevitable misfortunes life throws at us. On the other hand, while majority of companies/schools are reputable, there are shady operations out there that can make your life a living hell. Those trapped in this unfortunate circumstance have an eternal list of grievances and will do anything it takes to escape before things get too ugly. But no matter what your excuse is, by leaving you’re still breaching your contract and technically breaking the law. If you must resign, there are a few things you can do to help soften the crash landing.

First re-read the contract you signed because leaving might be a lot easier than you think. Some contracts, especially for certain ESL schools, have three-month trial periods for the teacher to see if he or she is a good fit for the school, making it easy to get out of the contract with little repercussions during that timeframe. My work contract, for example, also says that even though the employee should complete the term of the contract, it is possible to leave simply by giving a 30-day notice. Second, don’t lose your cool. Emotions can run high on both sides of the table when addressing this sensitive issue, but just remember that losing your temper can create a mountain of problems that could screw you over in the long run; especially if you need the paper work for another job within China as mentioned in the “switching job” section. Lastly, since every situation/company/contract is different, ask some of the others at your work about people who’ve quit in the past. They can most certainly give you better advice on the issue since they have seen it with their own eyes and possess a certain “insider” knowledge.

Use your best judgment

In conclusion, it’s always best to finish up your time accordingly, which shouldn’t be too difficult since most out there have only signed one-year contracts. While this may seem long at first, it’s really not. Instead of jumping the gun and escaping to the airport in the middle of the night, give it a chance—you may even discover that it’s not as bad as you thought. When I first moved to China, I was disappointed and considered leaving. But over time, it grew on me and I’ve been very content with my life here ever since. In the unfortunate incident that you do get stuck within an “evil” company who’s treating you poorly and truly believe negotiating or rationalizing with the boss will only make matters worse, then by all means tough times call for tough measures. Just make sure that you are fully aware of and willing to accept the consequences before taking off on a midnight run. Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

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