Chris* thought it might be a fire inspection. Walking into his Chengdu, China, office at Disney English, a Disney subsidiary that teaches English through the antics of its animated characters, he was not alarmed by the throng of blue-uniformed law enforcement officers crowding the center's front desk. This was China, after all, and having been teaching in the country for several months already, he'd learned not to be taken aback by bizarre situations.
Then the uniformed men began to seize all foreigners, and Chris realized he might be in serious trouble.
Chris was herded into a classroom with his co-workers. The officers in blue, who turned out to be officials from Chengdu's Public Security Bureau, pulled the foreigners out for questioning one by one. Disney English had apparently failed to register for work permits in the city, leaving the teachers accused of illegal immigration to China.
"'Just trust Disney that we have your backs and we'll take care of you.' That's all they ever said," Chris recalls.
Chris, a former private school administrator who applied to teach at Disney after falling in love with Chengdu's energy, is not alone. While the prominence of Disney's brand makes a subsidiary's legal malfeasance surprising, perhaps it shouldn't be. Interviews with numerous former and current ESL teachers at public and private schools in China found that nearly every teacher had been subjected to one or many labor abuses.
(A Disney spokesperson reached for comment told us, "In every region where we do business, we abide by the local rules and regulations, and we have no further comment.")
Many English teachers at Chinese schools see their contracts handled by for-profit, third-party hiring agencies rather than by the schools. These agencies earn a commission for each teacher placement and often employ teachers on tourist or business visas rather than the legally required work visas. They also offer contracts to foreigners who do not qualify for work visas, instruct potential teachers to lie on their visa applications to avoid revealing work plans, provide paychecks late or not at all, and deny teachers the paid leave and paid sick days offered by the school.
Chris continues to work for Disney English. The center manager of his branch emailed him that though "some of our team members feel upset about [the] working permission issue" and though the "extreme situation" caused class to be canceled, "don't be worried" was her advice.
But Chris, like many other ESL teachers across China, is worried.
Due to mistreatment by employment agencies, many of the foreign teachers we interviewed reported suffering from emotional strain, struggling with restricted salaries, and fighting frequent battles with their agencies in order to receive paychecks. While they all expected to face some cultural difficulties, none realized quite what they would be in for.
In 2012, David, a Canadian, booked a flight to Qingdao, a city in northeast China, after getting a job offer from a teaching agency. David received the offer even though he'd made it clear he did not have a bachelor's degree. "[The agent] just kind of shrugged it off. He said that sort of thing wasn't really a big deal," David recalled.
Such reassurances are odd given that many schools ask that their foreign teachers have bachelor's degrees and the Chinese government requires it. But the loss of a teacher, qualified or not, would mean the loss of potential profit for an agency, giving it incentive to bend the rules.
The Qingdao school rejected David, deeming him unqualified. Undeterred, the agency shipped him off to Shanghai, where another outfit accepted him. This new agency provided David with a tourist visa rather than a work visa, and skimmed off a portion of his wages throughout his time teaching at Shanghai schools.
"It's a common scam for agencies/employers that are unable to secure such a permit to bring employees to China to work illegally with non-work visas," Gary Chodorow, a prominent US-China immigration lawyer, wrote in an email. "[But] the statute is clear that work in China without a work-type residence permit is illegal."
Some companies refer to the teachers as unpaid interns and pay them in cash-stuffed envelopes each month.
These agencies seem to fully understand the illegality of their practices. Rooney, a Shanghai native employed by one agency, said he was visited twice by Shanghai police who demanded to see the work permits for foreign teachers in his charge.
"They kept warning me that if the teachers don't have the certificate, they'd be banished from the country," he said, and his agency "said they'd send it the next day, but they didn't."
Despite the existence of specific requirements, misinformation regarding legal employment is epidemic. Agencies frequently assure teachers like David that visa or foreign expert certificate requirements either do not exist or can be easily bypassed. These illegal operators instruct teachers to apply for tourist or business visas, rather than work visas.
Because foreigners cannot legally earn money in China on non-work visas, some companies refer to the teachers as unpaid interns and pay them in cash-stuffed envelopes each month.
"I'm afraid of not having a visa when I should have one, and it's causing me a lot of stress, financially and mentally," said Lisa, who at the time was teaching on a short-term tourist visa that was nearly spent. (She has since obtained a legitimate work visa and remains in Shanghai.)
The envelopes can conceal further problems. "I remember getting a couple of bills in my salary that were counterfeit," said another Canadian teacher named Doug. "The manager just laughed it off, made it look like I was being an idiot or something, so I always ran my bills through a money counter after that."
Since Doug, like David and Lisa, worked on a tourist visa, he had to travel to Hong Kong every six months to renew it. Even as the flights sapped his bank account, the agency never contributed to the bill.
Provincial public security bureaus can fine schools 10,000 RMB (about $1,600) for each illegal foreign employee, and reserve the right to confiscate any profits earned from illegal workers. But at the same time, parents at schools such as Lisa's will pay nearly three times more in tuition if their children to sit in front of a foreigner rather than a local teacher. Because the potential gains from having Western faces are so high, many schools apparently believe the benefits for employing any foreigner outweigh the risks of being caught hiring one illegally.
If schools or agencies do hire illegally, Dan Harris, an expert in Chinese law, told us, they decrease costs by as much as 40 percent by avoiding taxes and benefits payments.
"[Agencies] don't want to raise issues, or they will lose their placement fee commissions," said Chris Devonshire-Ellis, founder of Dezan Shira & Associates, a professional services firm that assists foreign investors in China. "There is a black market for unqualified English teachers in China.
"Many [teachers] are not even aware they are breaking the law," he added.
Beyond the nationally mandated Z visa, all foreign teachers in China must obtain a work permit issued by provincial offices of the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs (SAFEA). Requirements vary by province, though cities like Beijing and Shanghai require a bachelor's degree and either two years of work experience or a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) certificate.
US Consulate Information Officer Wylita Bell told us she didn't have information on the requirements for obtaining legal work visas. While the US Embassy in Beijing publishes an online warning about working without a Z visa, its link to instructions on applying for a visa is broken. The text that one can read repeatedly emphasizes the embassy's inability to provide legal advice to US citizens.
Due to the prevalence of deception, even qualified foreign teachers find themselves in vulnerable positions every year.
Coaxing out numeric estimates can be tricky, but lawyer Dan Harris says he hears "all the time" about foreigners teaching in illegal positions.
David came to China unaware that he was working illegally on an F visa, and that he was unqualified to work at his originally assigned school because he lacked a college degree. But due to the prevalence of deception, even qualified foreign teachers find themselves in vulnerable positions every year.
Fairley Nickerson was one such promising recruit. A Chicago native, she had a Stanford degree, excellent Mandarin, and a desire to make teaching her life's work. Teach for China (TFC)—a nonprofit focused on reducing educational inequality in rural China affiliated with the Teach for All network run by Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp—seemed like a perfect match. But upon her arrival in China, she discovered a harsh discrepancy between circumstances on the ground and the words on her contract.
According to Fairley and other TFC alumni, one of the program's largest donors had asked the organization to expand into Guangdong, but TFC had not yet received governmental approval to send new teachers there in 2012. The organization hired Nickerson and allowed her to finance her own relocation to China, all without a job waiting.
"At first they didn't tell us a thing," Nickerson said. "We just didn't have schools, and we didn't know why. Finally, they told us they were waiting on a document to be signed by a local official, and he'd sign it any day now.
"The next update," she added, "was that the official had gone on vacation."
Three weeks into the school year, the document had yet to materialize. The teachers could neither legally teach nor, without Z visas, receive a salary.
"The leaders asked us to remember that this is China, and this kind of thing happens all the time," said Nickerson.
After over three months in China without a day in front of students, Nickerson found a new job in Shanghai. The experience left her "disillusioned," she said. "I came to China to teach and I wasn't even in a classroom."
In a written statement, vice president of Teach for China Linh Carpenter said the failure to promptly place teachers in 2012 was caused by a "bureaucratic miscommunication," and acknowledged that 20 percent of that year's fellows left before completing their contracts.
In yet another example of conflicting information provided to foreign teachers, Carpenter emphasized that " Teach for China does not employ our Fellows and we do not pay them a salary"—despite the fellows' contract from that year, which states that TFC provides fellows with both "employment" and "salary."
Those teachers who do reach classrooms often find themselves in similarly troubling situations. Though many agencies promise some sort of teacher training, few offer any orientation.
"There wasn't even a textbook," said Caroline, a recent Boston University graduate who taught for six months in Shenzhen. "People were like, 'Oh, that's so cool, you can do whatever you want,' but I would have loved to have something to follow."
Teachers reported agencies shuffling them between multiple schools within a single day, forcing them to adapt on the spot to different student ages, skill levels, and class sizes, and isolating them from school administrators. This maximizes profit for the agencies, which can collect separate fees from each school.
Of course, increases in profit do not necessarily lead to higher teacher pay. As middlemen, agencies are able to take large and unrecorded cuts from the money the schools pay out before packaging the remainder as teachers' salaries. Several teachers we interviewed first came to China with third-party companies, but managed to negotiate their way into full-time positions with schools after one or two semesters. Only once they'd twisted out of the agencies' grips did they realize how much money they had lost—all reported massive pay increases once they began receiving salaries directly. One American said his pay quadrupled.
"I'm just a machine to them," said Lisa.
Agencies often hire from countries such as France, Germany, or Cuba, and then pressure those teachers to lie to schools about their origins.
Some teachers also discovered that though their schools offer paid sick days and paid vacation, agencies intercept that money and do not pay for those days.
Due to their illegal status, foreign teachers have few options for recourse, attorney Gary Chodorow explained.
"Last year, the Supreme People's Court decided that foreigners working illegally in China have no 'labor relationship' with the employer," he said. "With no labor relationship, the foreign national working illegally has no access to arbitration."
Beyond the financial and legal struggles, foreign teachers—many of whom do not speak Chinese—find themselves struggling with isolation. Though in certain provinces ESL teachers must be native English speakers, agencies often hire from countries such as France, Germany, or Cuba, and then pressure those teachers to lie to schools about their origins.
"In one school we have to be American, in another Canadian," said Nadia, a South African who has taught illegally in China for four years. "Our identity gets taken away from us."
"In order to work as a teacher in China you need certain documents... I didn't have either, so [the agency] helped me to make it up. It was fake, of course," wrote Arthur, a Russian who teaches at several public schools in Shanghai. "I'm not a native English speaker, so I have to pretend that I am."
Rooney says his company employed only two native speakers out of approximately 20 people on staff—and the agencies often force even native English speakers to lie, to fill the gap between the type of teacher the company promised it would provide and the less-qualified teacher who shows up. Nadia's boss forged a college diploma for her without her knowledge, and Doug, the Canadian teacher, said that his agency boss made him tell the school he had a linguistics degree. Doug, who had never taught before a company placed him in a Shanghai elementary school, was also instructed to tell the school that he had extensive experience teaching high schoolers, "so that would explain why I wasn't as good" at teaching in his first-grade classroom.
Pitted against the mechanisms of third-party companies on a daily basis, many foreign teachers report psychological stress. They lose faith, and describe nervous habits, health issues, and widening mental swamps of anger and distrust.
Eventually, they reach breaking points.
"I [told the agency], 'I'm going to come in on Saturday, and if you don't have [my money] I'm going to bring a hammer and I'm going to smash down your glass door and break every computer you have,'" an American teacher named Jacob told us. The agency had delayed issuing his final paycheck for three weeks, he said, and the school year was nearly over.
"I'm normally not aggressive, [but] I feel they forced my hand," Jacob said. After weeks of failed diplomatic efforts, the threat finally got him his money.
Another teacher reported co-workers setting contracts on fire in the middle of company offices, or tipping over desks.
Many foreigners facing these pressures simply pack up and leave, writing off lost wages and wasted time as the price of getting home safely. But these agencies don't limit their exploitation to those with exit opportunities. Several Chinese employees we interviewed described similar environments of fraud and frustration. Rooney, the Shanghai native, said that while he dreams of becoming an "excellent English teacher," the agency provided him with no training and even refused to pay his federally mandated housing/retirement fund.
Despite their negative impact on teacher quality and stability, third-party agencies continue to gain contracts with schools around China. Those in the field say schools' aversion to dealing with foreigners, unwillingness to apply for the right to sponsor visas, and general power of the status quo all contribute to the system's inertia.
"Schools have a vested financial and administration interest in not complying," Devonshire-Ellis, an expert in Chinese FDI, wrote us. "The system is badly monitored and regulated and private schools abuse this as a result."
Sharon, a Chinese teaching assistant, put things a bit more bluntly: "The principal, she doesn't care so much about teaching quality."
* Several names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of teachers who remain in China.
Zoe Leavitt is a recent Stanford graduate who worked in finance in Shanghai for two years and currently lives and works in New York City. Aaron Lee spent more than three years teaching in Chinese and international schools in Shanghai.