THIN ICE

The de­ten­tion of two Ir­ish women who were work­ing side jobs at an un­li­censed school in Bei­jing shines a spot­light on the il­le­gal English ed­u­ca­tion mar­ket in China

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - FRONT PAGE - By Ka­trin Büchen­bacher

It is in­cred­i­bly easy to slide to­wards il­le­gal teach­ing work in China. I met Sally, a Chi­nese English lan­guage teacher, on the streets of Qinghe, Haid­ian dis­trict, in Bei­jing in the spring of 2017. I was look­ing for a nail sa­lon that I had an ap­point­ment with. But in­stead of help­ing me with di­rec­tions, Sally of­fered me a

job right on the spot.

“We are look­ing for for­eign English lan­guage teach­ers at our school,” she said. “When can you start?” I was busy at the time, but I still added her on WeChat.

Over a year later, Sally still sends me job of­fers. She also asks me to rec­om­mend my for­eign friends to her, but “he bet­ter come from a developed Western coun­try.”

“It is the stereo­type for Chi­nese par­ents, so do not think too much,” she explained af­ter I ex­pressed my con­cern about the re­quire­ments.

The pay was 1,500 yuan ($235) for five-hour blocks on the week­end. It was more than I was mak­ing with my full-time job, so I was tempted to ac­cept.

But my col­league at work warned me against it. “Did you hear about the two Ir­ish teach­ers who got ar­rested be­cause of their side jobs teach­ing English?” she asked me.

I hadn't. But af­ter do­ing some re­search, I found that the two Ir­ish women's sit­u­a­tion was very sim­i­lar to mine. They were work­ing full­time jobs as teach­ers for the com­pany that had ap­plied for their work visas. At the same time, they had ac­cepted side jobs at a school that was not li­censed to em­ploy for­eign­ers. Dur­ing a po­lice raid at the school, the of­fi­cers ar­rested 11 peo­ple, in­clud­ing the two Ir­ish women, the Ir­ish Times re­ported. They were re­leased af­ter spend­ing more than a week in de­ten­tion. The women were kept in sep­a­rate cells and were not al­lowed to call their fam­i­lies while in cus­tody. But they were not de­ported, peo­ple close to the mat­ter told the Ir­ish Times.

Not worth the risk

I talked to a few teach­ers to get a feel for the im­pact the in­ci­dent has had on the Bei­jing teach­ing com­mu­nity.

Tracy Fe­er­ick is as a high school English lan­guage teacher at the 21st Cen­tury Bei­jing In­ter­na­tional School. The in­ci­dent shocked and scared her, but did not sur­prise her be­cause “it seems like there are a lot of il­le­gal teach­ers in China.”

How­ever, she does not think that the prom­i­nent case of the two Ir­ish women will change that. “Peo­ple who have side jobs are just go­ing to keep them. They just prob­a­bly won't talk about them that much,” she said.

Fe­er­ick said she had been told “many times” that she isn't al­lowed to take part-time teach­ing jobs on her visa. But in 2017, she found her­self in a sit­u­a­tion where she had to work on a tourist visa for eight months be­cause her school was in the process of giv­ing her a work visa.

Meryl (pseu­do­nym), with­held her real name be­cause the pri­vate in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tion she works for pro­hibits her from speak­ing to the media. She thinks it is “sad” that no­body told the Ir­ish women that they were not al­lowed to have a sec­ond job. For her, the women's de­ten­tion is a “big warn­ing.”

“It's also on the con­tract,” she said. “It's not worth it to get a side gig for just that lit­tle bit of ex­tra cash.”

Il­le­gal is nor­mal

Chi­nese par­ents who pay more money for their chil­dren to be ed­u­cated by na­tive English speak­ers are of­ten un­aware of their kid's teacher's pre­car­i­ous le­gal sit­u­a­tion. What drives the teach­ers into il­le­gal­ity is not only schools that can't of­fer proper work visas for them but also that their own qual­i­fi­ca­tions do not meet China's work visa re­quire­ments. To teach in China legally, the ap­pli­cant has to be na­tive in the lan­guage they teach, have a bach­e­lor's de­gree and at least two years of teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Ye­gor (pseu­do­nym), be­longs to this cat­e­gory. He's a passionate and pop­u­lar English teacher. Ye­gor tells every­one that he's half English, half Pol­ish and has a cute lit­tle back­story about the small town in England where his mom grew up that he hasn't vis­ited in ages.

But Ye­gor has never been to England, and he is 100 per­cent Pol­ish, which means he can­not ap­ply for a proper work visa as an English teacher.

“The worst part is, if I tell the par­ents the truth, they won't trust my English skills any­more,” he explained.

He works high-paid, part-time jobs to fi­nance his life as an as­pir­ing rock star with his band. Ev­ery three months, he takes a bus from Bei­jing to Mon­go­lia. It's the quick­est and cheap­est way to re­new his busi­ness visa, as it only takes 24 hours and around 1,000 yuan ($157).

Teach­ing on a stu­dent, busi­ness or tourist visa or as a side job is so com­mon that no one in the ex­pat com­mu­nity bats an eyelash.

Owen John­ston from the UK has had var­i­ous teach­ing jobs dur­ing the four years he lived in China.

“In my pre­vi­ous com­pany they def­i­nitely had a few po­lice raids where the staff was kept overnight,” he said. “It's kind of an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard. When teach­ing in China, ex­pect ev­ery­thing to be riskier.”

Be­ing well aware of that risk, John­ston said he al­ways made sure to be on a proper visa when start­ing a new job. There has only been a short pe­riod where he worked on a busi­ness visa be­fore his school got through with the pa­per­work, he said.

To find out if the schools re­ally did not care about em­ploy­ing teach­ers who lacked the proper pa­per­work, I de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate Sally's work­place to find out how far they would go to em­ploy me, know­ing that they are not li­censed and I am not al­lowed to work for them on my visa.

Ap­par­ently, Sally was un­der the im­pres­sion that I was in China on a spousal visa be­cause she knows of my Chi­nese boyfriend. It's il­le­gal to work on a spousal visa, but for Sally's school, the only thing that mat­tered was that I would be able to stay in China longterm.

When I clarified that I al­ready had a work visa, Sally was happy too. I in­formed her that I would vi­o­late the laws of my work per­mit by get­ting a side job and also asked her if their school was li­censed to em­ploy for­eign­ers. Sally had al­ready pre­pared an an­swer. “The com­pany said that from now on, the salary will be paid in cash, so the po­lice can't find any in­for­ma­tion about you,” she texted me. In the event of an un­ex­pected po­lice raid, she sug­gested I tell the po­lice that I was just there to play with the kids. “We have se­cu­rity guards in the build­ing. The av­er­age per­son can't get in; no­body will be able to be­tray you to the po­lice,” she said.

Teach­ers get all the blame

To as­sist for­eign­ers who find them­selves in com­pli­cated visa sit­u­a­tions or have is­sues with their com­pa­nies, Kyle H, who with­held his full name out of con­cern for his fam­ily, cre­ated the or­ga­ni­za­tion Ex­pat Rights in 2017. One of Ex­pat Rights' ser­vices is to of­fer free le­gal ad­vice. Ac­cord­ing to Kyle's ex­pe­ri­ence as a long-term ex­pat based in Hangzhou, the cap­i­tal of East China's Zhe­jiang Prov­ince, “the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple are teach­ing il­le­gally in China.”

He com­pares their sit­u­a­tion to the un­doc­u­mented Mex­i­can farm­work­ers in the southern states of the US.

The fa­vor­able mar­ket con­di­tions en­cour­age for­eign work­ers to come to China, Kyle said.

While the en­try bar­ri­ers to open an English school are low, get­ting the li­cense to em­ploy for­eign­ers must be chal­leng­ing, Kyle explained. Ac­cord­ing to Chap­ter 2, Ar­ti­cle 5 of the Rules for the Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Em­ploy­ment of For­eign­ers in China, “The em­ployer shall ap­ply for the em­ploy­ment per­mis­sion if it in­tends to em­ploy for­eign­ers.” Ac­cord­ing to INS, a con­sult­ing firm in China that helps for­eign com­pa­nies ex­pand into China, re­quire­ments for both ap­pli­cants and em­ploy­ees change mul­ti­ple times a year, with the visa system al­ready be­ing very com­plex.

“Every­one involved makes a huge amount of money, so every­one wants it, the par­ents, the schools, and the teach­ers,” Kyle said.

With le­gal re­quire­ments be­ing high, these are the ideal con­di­tions for a black mar­ket to emerge. If schools hire il­le­gally, they de­crease costs by as much as 40 per­cent by avoid­ing taxes and ben­e­fits pay­ments, Dan Har­ris, a Chi­nese law expert, told the on­line magazine Vice.

To prove that English lan­guage schools were all too will­ing to em­ploy for­eign teach­ers il­le­gally, Kyle ran an ex­per­i­ment with the Bei­jinger's clas­si­fieds sec­tion by ap­ply­ing for ev­ery teach­ing job on the first two pages. In his email, he clearly stated that he did not have a de­gree and was there­fore not qual­i­fied for a work visa.

“Eighty-eight per­cent of the schools were keen on get­ting me on­board any­way,” he said, sum­ma­riz­ing the re­sults. Only one out of 20 em­ploy­ers de­clined his ap­pli­ca­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to China's new im­mi­gra­tion law of 2013, em­ploy­ers can be fined up to 100,000 yuan for each il­le­gally em­ployed for­eigner, the South China Morn­ing Post re­ported. For­eign­ers who work il­le­gally can be fined be­tween 5,000 yuan to 20,000 yuan, de­tained be­tween five and 15 days and face de­por­ta­tion.

“A lot of the bur­den and blame falls solely on the teach­ers,” Kyle said.

The US Em­bassy, be­ing well aware of the sit­u­a­tion, has come up with an ex­ten­sive guide to teach­ing in China.

“It is up to each in­di­vid­ual to eval­u­ate po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers be­fore sign­ing a con­tract,” they write on their web­site.

In this blame game where schools refuse to take re­spon­si­bil­ity, teach­ers are left with look­ing out for them­selves. Af­ter all, il­le­gal work is the main rea­son ex­pats are de­ported from China, the Ir­ish Times re­ported. So, I de­cided to re­sist the temp­ta­tion of earn­ing a lit­tle ex­tra money in ex­change for risk­ing my work visa and deleted Sally from my WeChat con­tacts.

Photo: IC

With mar­ket de­mand for na­tivelook­ing English teach­ers be­ing high and en­try bar­ri­ers low, more and more for­eign­ers put them­selves at risk of be­ing fined, de­tained or de­ported.

The system does not smile on non-na­tive English lan­guage teach­ers, says one stake­holder.

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