Saturday, December 15, 2007

The 'Evil Bastard Employers' - a case study

The EBEs were my first employer in China - a large (and supposedly prestigious) private college based in Beijing.

I very nearly left them after just a couple of weeks. After 6 or 7 weeks, during the October National Holiday, I was offered a job at a different school by a charming new Irish friend (on twice the money!)..... and turned it down only because I was so enjoying the location of the EBEs' then campus, right in the heart of the city, only a few minutes' stroll from the famous old Bell Tower.

The EBEs were the archetypal bad China employer (and then some), the kind of people you occasionally read about in the papers back home: dishonest, bullying, penny-pinching, disorganized, incompetent, corrupt, completely devoid of any concern either for their students or their teachers - an ethical black hole.

Amongst my complaints against them:

1) They grossly inflated our utilities charges, just so that they could claw back a little more of our salary from us (already at minimum wage levels anyway!).

2) They began the year by "inadvertently" levying on us the unpaid utilities charges from the summer and the end of the previous school year - a sum that amounted in some cases to more than half of our meagre first month's salaries. They admitted the "mistake" immediately, but it took us weeks of browbeating before they would refund us the money.

3) They refused to go to the trouble or expense of replacing one teacher who was desperately ill - miserable, dysfunctional - with schizophrenia. They even hired her back for a second year, although it must have been quite obvious what kind of problems she was having (the students complained about her constantly, and had nicknamed her Girl Who Talks To Herself). I know, it seems incredible: but they really did let down the students, let down her teaching colleagues, let down the girl herself, just to save themselves the one month's salary agency fee for finding a new teacher.

4) Although our original contracts had specified that our airfares would be refunded as soon as we arrived, they refused to do so - because they were afraid that we would all leave as soon as they did. Eventually we prevailed on them to refund half at the beginning of the year and half at the end. When they finally refunded the second half, they insisted on using the more favourable exchange rate from the beginning of the year rather than the then current one. 'Penny-pinching' barely even begins to cover it!

5) Just before Christmas, I let them know that I really needed to go home urgently for a family funeral. I didn't tell them it was my Mum, but I did make it clear it was important. Going home wouldn't have been a problem for me, since I already had an open-return air ticket. However, I really wanted to come back and complete my contracted teaching year with them (not for the employers' sake, of course, but for my own personal sense of honour, and out of loyalty to my students). I had no money at all (a situation not helped by the fact that they had been consistently under-paying me for 3 months); therefore, I asked them if they would refund the rest of my airfare immediately, so that I would be able to come back after the funeral. They refused point blank. I guess they just didn't trust me to return for the second half of the year. Fair enough - but even so, you'd think they might have shown some trace of human compassion for my situation. Wouldn't you? No - they didn't give a damn.

6) The programme I was working on was a "2+2" bachelor's degree (2 years of foundation study in China, 2 years to complete the degree at a UK University). The EBEs had told our students that their acceptance for the final two years of study at the UK partner University was guaranteed. In fact, the University had set quite tough qualifying requirements, which many of the students were unlikely to meet. It was also cautious about how the programme would pan out, so had set an absolute cap of 15 student admissions in the first year. We had just over 40 students enrolled on the programme. The EBEs' approach to this problem was to carry on lying through their teeth to the students and their parents right up until the moment at the end of the year when the University's offer letters were received, and more than half of the students were to be disappointed. (We - well, I - had at least managed to persuade the University to accept all the students who'd met their original requirements: about 20. And we did manage to find other - lower-ranked - Universities who were willing to take the rest. But it was an anxious time, and there was understandably a lot of bitterness from the students.)

7) The EBEs' approach to this problem vis-a-vis the University was to fake all the marks for the degree programme elements being taken in China (one of my British teaching colleagues was happily colluding in this; although the University was pretty culpable too, in that there wasn't any meaningful monitoring of the programme's delivery in China - not even any moderation of the centre-marked exams!). This didn't actually do any good at all, however, because they had failed to take note of the required 'pass marks' in the first year of study, and had already submitted 'fail' results for around half of the students for the modules taken in that year. Dishonest and incompetent - I told you so.

8) When the college was closed down two months early that year by the SARS outbreak in Beijing, the EBEs thought they had better not inform the UK partner Universities of this. They were thinking quite seriously that they would be 'shamed' by such a revelation, and that it would be much better for all concerned if they just pretended that everything was still going along normally...... and manufactured all the results for the final exams. I eventually persuaded them that the Universities would be quite understanding, and in the circumstances would accept an online exam administered by e-mail. (Well, I persuaded them of that after I'd gone behind their backs to inform the Universities of the situation - I hadn't really been left with any choice.)

9) The UK visa applications the students had prepared - under the EBEs' direction - were largely incomplete, inadequate, particularly on the crucial areas of proof of parents' employment and financial means (I had made friends with the head of the Visa Department at an Embassy party, and had arranged for him to give me a thorough briefing on the procedures). I managed to get most of these gaps filled in (although, by this time, the students had all gone back to their home towns because of SARS), but many of the applications were still in pretty rocky shape. When I went along with one of the Chinese administrators to deliver the applications to the Consulate, he insisted that I stay in the taxi rather than accompany him. I reluctantly agreed, but..... I was able to see that he did not go inside to the visa office at all but met a Chinese guy outside the building to hand the applications over..... along with an envelope that was, I'm quite sure, stuffed with cash. Such is 'the Chinese way' - why bother to take the trouble to do something right, when you can just bribe someone instead? On this occasion, it seemed to work.

10) The following year, I learned that their entire batch of visa applications - something like 80 or so kids seeking to study in the UK - was rejected. The EBEs had managed to get themselves 'blacklisted'. I'm not sure if this was down to the previous year's bribery, or some other irregularity (using 'visa agents' to provide fake documentation about employment and bank details is quite a common problem here). Fortunately, the kids were able to re-apply individually and most of them were eventually successful.

11) When a second of my colleagues succumbed to mental health problems, they sacked him (at least Girl Who Talks To Herself had kept showing up to classes, even if she rarely managed to do anything that might be described as teaching; this guy kept on taking long runs of 'sick days'). This was done extremely abruptly, without following any kind of proper disciplinary procedure or making any attempt to deal sympathetically with his difficulties, to make sure that he could get back home. No, they left him penniless, ill and miserable, out on the streets with no return air-ticket and a visa that was about to expire. He showed up on my door on the eve of the May holiday, a gibbering wreck. My pal The Chairman and I took it in turns to look after him over the long holiday weekend, until the British Consulate re-opened and we were able to persuade them to arrange an emergency repatriation. (I had contacted the guy's parents, but they had washed their hands of him - apparently it was at least the fourth or fifth time that he'd broken down in the middle of an overseas teaching gig and had to fly home [a fact that was quite apparent from his ragged CV; but that had evidently been of no concern to the EBEs, or to the unscrupulous British recruitment agent who found most of their teachers for them], and they couldn't afford to keep bailing him out any more.)

12) When two of my other English colleagues decided that they'd had enough of the lying and bullying and chaotic administration, and made plans to go home early, they were subjected to a very unpleasant campaign of intimidation (to try to 'persuade' them to change their minds!) - including a rather ham-fisted attempt to steal their passports, an attempt to extort a large 'breach of contract' payment out of them, and a threat that they would be arrested at the airport if they tried to leave the country.

13) The EBEs also attempted to extort additional fees from their students by refusing to release their qualifications to them. In particular, they had a bunch of former students who'd recently completed Master's degrees in the UK. There had been some kind of arrangement - I think, fairly informal - that these students would show their gratitude to the EBEs, for giving them access to these qualifications, by returning to work for them afterwards - for an indefinite period of time, on a cripplingly low salary: a kind of slave labour, in effect. When some of them grew disillusioned with these conditions and tried to quit, the EBEs tried to bully them by refusing to release their degree certificates to them. (Note to UK Universities - please don't try to save money by distributing certificates to students via a Chinese education institution: it's asking for trouble.)

14) The EBEs also tried to avoid paying us our final month or two's salary (during the SARS period), despite a government edict that 'foreign experts' like us were to have their contracts for the year honoured in full. They actually tried to claim that the bank's security guards were refusing to deliver the payroll because of fears about the disease. Another one of those lies that's so transparent, you wonder why they bother. I'd seen some money being delivered in the morning, so I went along to the finance office after lunch - and found them counting out a huge wedge of cash for one of the 'knitting ladies' (there was a whole room full of old ladies who did no work at all, they just sat around chatting and drinking tea and knitting all day long; and yet, they were on the payroll - some sort of Communist-era 'work unit' pension scheme, I gather). I demanded - and got! - my outstanding pay. It took a while; I had to phone as many of the other teachers as I could "for back-up". The knitting lady looked rather crestfallen that our money was being taken out of 'her' wedge (obviously a lump sum payment for all the knitters). Happy times!!

15) The following year, the EBEs were forced to do a midnight flit from one of their supplementary campuses, out of town. It seems they'd never actually paid any rent since they moved into the premises 6 months before (Was it incompetence or penny-pinching dishonesty this time? It's impossible to guess!), and the landlord lost patience with them and cut off the power. For a while, they were trying to operate their small city-centre campus with 3 times the number of students and teachers it was really capable of accommodating.

Oh, I could go on. These are just the juiciest stories that come immediately to mind. I had thought I'd be able to put a lid on it at 8 or 10, but look how I've run on already.

And the really sad thing about all of this is that, as I have learned from the subsequent 5 years in China, this kind of thing is not at all uncommon. In fact, it is depressingly standard: Chinese employers (especially in teaching institutions) are almost universally SHITE.

That's the reason I've never stayed in a job here for more than a year. It's the reason why I have tried to get out of teaching altogether. It's the reason why I felt distinctly less than comfortable in my last job, working for a UK education company as the liaison with Chinese partner schools and Universities. (Ugh, Universities! Don't get me started - that's a whole other rant all of its own.)

You may well ask why I bother to stay here at all! I often ask myself that same question. I suppose the answer is that the idealist in me still believes that some of these shite things can be changed....


Anonymous said...

I was planning to teach in China aswell... it's freaky.

Froog said...

Well, I hope I haven't put you off, visitor.

The kids are great. And you can actually manage to get the job done, despite having to work for dishonest, incompetent fuckwits.

Froog said...

The Chairman has reminded me that the securing our last salary payment incident in No. 14 had threatened to become a bit of a Dog Day Afternoon hostage crisis. I had planted my ample frame in the small gap between the service counter and the door, thereby making it impossible for any of the shifty bean-counting staff - or the unfortunate knitting lady - to leave until I got my money. As so often, I sought to ameliorate this discourtesy with an elaborate dumbshow of apologetic shrugs and smiles. The knitting lady took it remarkably well (she didn't have anything else to do, I suppose), but the bean-counters were freaking out rather. They still stonewalled for half an hour or so, though; claiming they didn't have enough money to pay us..... right up until the moment when they paid us.

Froog said...

I just remembered I never got around to adding the story of one of the more juicy and alarming scandals to envelop this college in my second year here, after I'd quit them.

A tanker making a delivery of winter fuel for the boilers mysteriously blew up - in the courtyard, right next to the main teaching/teachers' accommodation building. The fire soon subsided, and the blast damage was remarkably minor - but the initial fireball scorched the front of the building quite badly and cracked several windows. The incident highlighted how inadequate the college's firefighting facilities were: a LONG building, with exits only at each end, not in the middle, and no fire doors on the staircases themselves; ancient, threadbare firehoses that hadn't been unravelled in years, and proved to be full of holes; emergency lighting that didn't work. Quite a few of the teaching staff freaked out about this, and threatened to leave unless things were drastically improved.

The cause of the explosion was never discovered, or never disclosed. Rumours were rife that it was an act of sabotage by some disgruntled business associate - perhaps the landlord of the suburban campus who had recently evicted some hundreds of their students and staff because of a protracted non-payment of rent.