This story originally covered by News24 South Africa.
The detainment of 51 South Africans in June of 2018 has highlighted the shadier aspects of the ESL industry and, more specifically, the need for teachers who plan on working outside of their native countries to educate themselves on visa and labor laws in that country.
All 51 teachers were brought to China by a recruiter who promised them a work visa after arrival. The agreement was that they would enter on student visas and begin working. After their arrival, the proper Z-Visa would be provided.
As in most cases such as this, the promised Z-Visas never materialized. Instead, the school the teachers were hired at never inquired about their visa status nor did they get in touch with the recruiter. The teachers were paid half of the agreed-upon salary and were told to hide when police inevitably came by the school.
As I discussed in a prior article on the ESL Job Exchange blog, it is quite common for schools that hire teachers illegally to engage in unscrupulous practices such as withholding pay or demanding extra hours as there is no recourse for the teacher who is working illegally.
What’s worse, schools and even students can receive a financial reward for reporting teachers who are working illegally. In theory, these schools should also be receiving penalties for hiring teachers illegally, however, this is often not the case for many schools which have connections with the police or government which they can leverage to avoid trouble. Because of this, teachers who have been duped into working illegally, such as the 51 South Africans, are at a severe disadvantage when dealing with the school.
After being discovered, the South African teachers were detained and ordered to remain confined in their dormitories until further notice. The Chinese government continued to hold the teachers for over a month so they could testify against the recruiter who brought them to China.
Eventually, all 51 teachers were allowed to leave and return to their home country.
Not everyone who has been caught working illegally in China has had the same experience, however. More often than not, being caught working illegally means that you will be spending time in an immigration detention facility in a small jail cell. There are cases of teachers spending months in these facilities while waiting to be blacklisted and deported.
In this case, the recruiter who brought the teachers to China was arrested and tried in a criminal court. However, this is not standard and there are many recruiters and schools that are allowed to operate illegally and bring teachers into the country illegally due to the connections they have. In these cases, it will always be the teacher who bears the burden if caught.
Always familiarize yourself with the laws of the country you are traveling to. In this incident, things worked out in the end, most likely due to the large number of teachers who were arrested as a group and the international attention it received. However, as a single teacher who has been arrested working illegally, the outcome may not be the same.