The trafficking of foreign ESL teachers in China
It was not until Christmas that I fully realized I was one of many foreign teachers being scammed in Beijing, China. A dream of going to China with the pure intentions of teaching English while exploring another culture has turned into an expensive nightmare.
Prior to coming to China I was promised 5000RMB or US$800 (RMB is Chinese currency) each month at an ESL school, a visa, a free apartment, and airfare to get home through an agency called ChinaESL, organized by Rebecca Tang. If you Google search her agency, you will find there is nothing negative being said about this company. She has links to Dave’s ESL cafe (one of the most popular foreign teacher employment websites worldwide) and I talked to plenty of people who have done ESL teaching in China and loved it. With all the information I could find at that time, I made my decision to head to China, a desire of mine since I was young.
Upon arrival in China I was forced to sign an additional contract by Rebecca Tang, who said she needed to remove 2000RMB (US$320) from the first three paychecks as a deposit. This left me to survive on 3000RMB (US$480) each month, then after I would receive my promised salary of 5000RMB.
There were several other cited stipulations in the contract, such as “If Party B shows the contract to anyone, Party A has the right to cancel Party B’s visa, put her on the blacklist, and charge 20,000RMB (US$3,200).” There were many other clauses that included seemingly ridiculous fees, but she told me if I didn’t sign the contract I’d have to pay 20,000RMB as a penalty. Since I didn’t know anyone in China, had no place to live (as this meeting took place in Tang’s home), and could barely speak the language, I felt I had no choice but to sign it—though I knew something didn’t feel right.
While much of my China adventure has been a wonderful experience—learning a new language, visiting the Great Wall and ancient temples, working with brilliant students, and falling in love with a brilliant British poet from Cardiff—I tried to hide the fact that I’ve been struggling financially. Every email and blog post featured only the highlights and positive aspects of my time here to comfort the worried concerns of friends and family back home in Olympia, Washington.
Of course I loved my job at Web International English (Web) and I’ve grown attached to the students in the four months I’ve been here. However, at a school Christmas party I met a nice person who also has the same agent. After sharing information regarding my financial situation and how I am struggling to live on so little pay, this person was brave enough to reveal to me that Rebecca was in fact stealing from me. She knew this because Tang has been doing the same thing to her, and charged a penalty for “giving her trouble.” I also learned that Web has been paying me significantly more than I had been told and that my agent has been keeping it for herself.
I am very grateful to this person for sharing this information so I could have the chance to do something about it; I mean, after all, part of the reason why I came here was to save up money because I couldn’t get a decent paying job in the education field in the United States.
After talking to the police, the Public Services bureau, the US embassy, and Web Headquarters, I found there is absolutely nothing that can be done. I sat in an interrogation room on two separate occasions–one for two hours and the other for four hours while my boss was helping me to translate what the police were saying. Basically the school is being fined and I’m being fined, even though I provided evidence that it was the agent’s fault for bringing me over here illegally, insisting that I needed an F visa. They also wrote the transcripts by hand rather than filming the conversation or voice recording it, and they forced me to sign the transcripts even though they did not accurately represent what was said in the interrogation. It turns out the agent, Rebecca Tang, has connections to the head of police and she has a close relationship with the head of the Entry/Exit department of the Public Services Bureau. The only chance I would stand at fighting her would be to take her to court, but I’d have to hire a lawyer and they know that I can’t afford that. No matter what, the system is set up so foreign teachers will lose even though several China Labor Laws are being broken.
Apparently I should have known better, and so should 60% of the foreign Web staff. In fact, three out of four teachers in just our center are in the same position. It turns out ChinaESL employs 60% of the foreign teacher population among all the Web centers in Beijing. Tang also has connections to preschools, kindergartens and other schools—and the government. Even though she’s breaking numerous labor laws, her ESL agency is the most well-marketed in China and nobody can hold her agency responsible. She has been doing this for 8 years and will continue to do it to unsuspecting foreigners. It is a form of trafficking, which is very, very common in China.
Web was willing to keep me, but they would have to pay a fee for me as if I were a cow or a store product–about 20,000RMB (US$3200), and I’d have to pay as well. The idea of one more cent of student money going towards that crow woman made me sick, so I kindly declined their offer and packed my bags. I’ve spent the past week saying good-bye to my friends, my students, my colleagues, and my boyfriend.
This has been the most emotionally draining experience I’ve had in my short life. And I can suspect people will say as they read this; “you should have taken more precautions,” “done more research on the company,” “not have signed the contract,” or “there are people that are poor and have nothing, you shouldn’t complain.” I can name more things about the better choices I “should” have made, and maybe my problem is relatively small to what others have suffered, but that does not justify the fact that this agent conned me and countless others into signing a contract that resulted in her stealing thousands while breaking Chinese labor laws. We were brought here to work illegally and we are traded like cattle. Many teachers, who could not find decent paying jobs elsewhere, came here for a chance to teach and offer a service to people who want to improve their English. If you are a newly graduated young female in her early twenties traveling alone and trying to pay off debts from student loans and assorted bills, maybe you’d understand the full effect of this. And hopefully learn from it. See: tips on agent scams.
Nobody deserves to be victimized or mistreated or taken advantage of. Period.
Now I won’t deny that the American justice system is far from perfect, and this story does not glorify any “fair” decisions the United States has made—as murderers and child molesters can get off on technicalities, and big corporate powers will pay fees that amount to a light slap on the wrist in the big scheme of their evil doings—but rather how easy it is for a foreigner to be victimized abroad.
Additionally this story does not presume to characterize the general population of Chinese people. In fact, I received overwhelming support from my students, my friends, my boss, and even had officials from three different schools offer to help me get the proper visa to be employed legally and offer a better wage. If I weren’t under the thumb of this wicked agent–who was controlling my bank account, my apartment, and had connections to powerful people who could potentially give me even more trouble–I would have been happy to accept. The fact is, I needed to be home with my friends and family to recover from what happened. I will return to China someday, but on my own terms and with much more awareness.
So, I approached my final days in Beijing simply knowing in my heart that I was right and that nothing could break my spirit…and then the impossible happened: I was invited to come to the police station once more to assess the fines for my offense of working here illegally under Tang’s supervision. The police apparently felt sorry for me and think this situation is unfair. They disapprove of Tang’s relationship with their boss, so they have devised a plan for me to escape: they submitted a request to reduce my fine in order to delay my paperwork process so I could leave the country without paying, as I’ve provided sufficient evidence that this offense was not my fault and due to Tang’s manipulation. They also said they would ensure my safety at the airport and their boss would have to let my case go.
I was in complete shock. Apparently this sort of thing never happens; to foreigners, to Chinese citizens, to people that are poor and powerless, to people that fought the system without proper legal defense. I have no idea why I was lucky, or why this ending turned out the way it did. It was a small victory compared to the grand scheme of ChinaESL’s evil doings, but any victory is worth celebrating.
Now, this is a rare victory. The truth is no matter where you go in the world, a stupid piece of paper can rip apart people that love each other, can disenchant your dream of making the world a better place, and (in cases far worse than mine) consume everything you have—everything but one—to quote my beloved: “If you know in your heart that you are right, nothing can touch you.”
Best wishes to anyone who aspires the same dream. May this story be helpful and eye-opening.
K.T. Cox, an ESL teacher working abroad, is an Olympia native, an Evergreen graduate (2011), and an occasional contributor to Works in Progress and other progressive papers and zines.
Tips for avoiding teacher trafficking
Do research at the countries embassy about decent living wages.
Have a lawyer review your contract to ensure it is in accordance with the country’s labor laws.
Make connections with citizens within the country before you go; ask if they’ve heard reviews on the business. You won’t always find bad reviews on companies just by internet research.
Signs of bad agents
They ask for money up front.
They use post office boxes instead of office addresses.
They make promises of employment and guarantees of refunds.
They charge fees for giving you a job lead.
They pressure you and encourage you to make a decision quickly.
They make you pay for your own visa and flight and don’t compensate you; a good business will offer that because you are doing them a service.
Helpful sites for teaching in China