As in many Chinese companies, from time to time things get pretty hectic at my company, and people are asked to do overtime. There’s no talk of overtime pay; working overtime is just a periodic necessity in the workplace. Chinese workers don’t even complain about it much.

When I’m asked to work overtime, I make it very clear that I expect that time off in the future. I know I won’t get overtime pay, but I don’t work for free.

The worst is when the middle managers try to plead with you: “just this once. Everyone else has to do it too.” And then there’s the three characters you hear the most that burn more than any others: “辛苦了“. This phrase is meant to acknowledge your hard work and sacrifice, but the reality is that this three-character utterance is the only thanks you’ll get.

At one point I felt bad that, as a foreigner, I was treated differently. Why should I rarely be asked to do overtime when the Chinese workers have to do it regularly? I’m no better than them.

Later, I decided that it is my duty to demonstrate what it is to be a worker from the West. To demonstrate that we really do abide by contracts, that employee-employer responsibilities are not one-way, that employees have power, that time is money, and my time–not just the company’s–is valuable too.

Sadly, none of the Chinese workers could possibly follow my example. They could easily and immediately be replaced. As a foreigner with special skills, I’m in a unique position. I can insist that each and every term of my contract is adhered to. And I can provide an example to my Chinese co-workers that will hopefully leave an impression: this is how it should be.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. As a foreigner in NZ, i am surprised and also pleased with the working environment here, which’s pretty much different from China. Im absolutely enjoy here.

                          A Chinese student in NZ
  2. Dragon in Dalian Says: May 4, 2005 at 8:38 pm

    I totally feel what you’re saying.

    I have an uphill battle everyday against Chinese middle management. I have to remind them often that I work for them so that I can be in China. I didn’t come to China to work for them.

    Sometimes, I feel a little bad… because I have to talk to my bosses like dogs… just to ensure that things go the way that they should. I have to stick my finger in their faces and shout, “NO…BAD chinese business person.”

    My chinese co-workers do sooo much overtime, and even travel for over an hour to work on their day off, for no extra pay. I try to encourage them to “Just say NO!”, but it seems that there’s just too much stacked against them.

    I, however, by character am a very strong person. I will wage wars over principle and I NEVER back down. So, I’m on the exact opposite pole from my chinese friends.

    I recently made a realization why many foreign companies are coming to china. It’s because, legally, china is still like the “Wild West”. Many times, there aren’t enough laws (at this time) to keep businesses in check. And, even if there is a law, there’s no one to enforce it. I mean, look at Walmart in China. China DOES, in fact, have some labor laws. However, Walmart refuses to unionise its workers. Not suprizing because Walmart in America uses non-union labor.

    I, now, work in a company that’s half American, half Chinese owned and operated. Recently, there’s been a problem where one of our American employees has been denied Health Insurance which was guaranteed in his contract. This is because his premium is higher than normal because he is older and a little overweight.

    Why is this company doing something that’s blatantly illegal??? Because this is China and they can get away with it.

    So, I had a little conference with my boss’s boss and let him know that if the situation wasn’t resolved that my friend would just go back to America. There, he could file suit against the company (who’s head office is in America) for damages and walk away with 6 digits.

    That got the company’s attention. However, it also might have gotten the spotlight thrown on me. I may have been labeled as a “trouble maker”.

    There’s one thing I WON’T BE….that’s “complacent”.

  3. Anonymous Says: May 4, 2005 at 11:15 pm

    With the current work climate what it is in America, people are working unpaid overtime here too. The job market is so tight that people are in fear of losing their job. With the cell phone and the laptop, many people don’t work their overtime in their offices; they take their jobs along with them. People are working more than 40 hours/week — and are glad (?) that they can do it. Maybe we’re adopting the Chinese system rather than vice versa?

  4. That last post was from me. 🙂

  5. I have to say John – you wouldn’t be able to get away with your behavior here in America very easily. I don’t know how the overtime here stacks up against the overtime in China, but a lot of people over here just have to suck it up because the work needs to get done. I mean, I’ve barely seen my roommate all week (including this past weekend) because she has a May 15th deadline. Her salary is good, but I bet if you broke down her salary by how many hours she works, she would probably make less than me per hour. She’s been promoted, has her Masters in Tax and has passed the CPA exam! Most peoplein America don’t have the luxury of telling their bosses “no” about overtime. And dad is right – cell phones, lap tops, blackberries and remote access to your work email are ever encroaching on peoples’ “personal time.”
    Enjoy saying “no” to overtime while you can 🙂

  6. I have to say John – you wouldn¡¯t be able to get away with your behavior here in America very easily.

    As John puts it this is because, As a foreigner with special skills, I¡¯m in a unique position. And, John, I would even venture that the unique position hinges more on your Westerner’s identity than your skill set or your westerner’s style.

    Chinese work cheaply in China, Chinese (and Mexicans and any other foreigners) work cheaply in America, and Americans work without overtime pay when their jobs are increasingly being shipped to Mexico, India, or China. I’m sure many IT service workers or consumer service workers in the States will testify to this last point. In addition, the mid management employees in a US company often are seen working big overtime, physically in office or remotely as Grace has described, without additional pay because either they feel they are paid a lot or/and they feel the pressure. Another group of overtime workers are the assistant professors (ro Assoc Profs before achieving tenure) and postdocs, with a few exceptions of true workholics, these geeks put in amazing amount of overtime without complaining, in a very similar way as the workers in China do.

    In China, many recall the post cultural revolution period when the productivity was extrememly low and people homogeneously poor. Back then if asked why, Chinese told you that it was because of the iron rice bowl system. Now the iron rice bowl has been smashed, almost completely, the situation has turned 180 degrees over. It has not make them homogenously rich, though.

  7. This point must be added: John, your speaking out for the Chinese workers (or workers rights in general) should be highly commanded, as should your attempts to demonstrate such to the Chinese workers. I do appreciate this post very much.

  8. This should have been published on May Day.

  9. Grace,

    I hear what you’re saying. It’s not so much about being able to say no to overtime, though, as it is getting compensated appropriately (time and a half?) for overtime. I’m sure Chinese workers would loooove some of that time and a half action.

    I know that what you and Tim P. say about a lot of Americans working unpaid overtime is true, but it’s still not right. Why should employees have any more obligation to “suck it up” and work unpaid overtime than a company should have an obligation to “suck it up” and pay time and a half? The mindset that the work being done by the company is bigger than the individuals involved and thus requires individuals’ sacrifices is pure nonsense, fabricated solely for the purposes of making more money.

  10. Gin,

    Thanks, but it’s really not so hard to be an idealist when it’s self-serving. (haha!)

    That said, though, it’s amazing how many foreigners give in to the social pressure.

  11. Salaried employees normally don’t get anything extra for overtime. You get a salary and you spend whatever extra time it takes to get the job you’re assigned done. If you’re lucky you get comp time, but most people don’t get that.

    Overtime pay is, for the most part, something reserved for hourly workers, and the equivalent of your job and your coworkers’ would be salaried positions.

  12. John B,

    Oops, I meant comp time.

    (Hmmm, am I making it very obvious that the majority of my work experience in the US was with jobs that paid hourly wages? I came to China right after graduating from college.)

  13. Boy, are all the bolsheviks coming out of the woodwork. John B. is correct, but in the United States is more than just tradition, it is law. Once upon a time salaried staff could receive overtime, but principled individuals, namely lawyers (and lawyers are the Western equivalent of the old Chinese Confucian Mandarins; meritocrats whose merit is based on principles) in the IRS said that was not right, not principled, not legal. Consequently, overtime pay for staff was forbidden, even if companies wanted to pay it (for economic reasons, a valid reason), even comp time was considered illegal (it may be permissible now, I have not worked in the US as a worker recently to know one way or the other).

    Most of my Chinese associates have very disparaging comments about overseas Chinese companies in general, and Taiwanese companies in particular. They tell me that they take advantage of Chinese, work Chinese like dogs, pay small wages, etc. Whether it is true or not, I do not know; it may just be envy about other Chinese being successfull, or it may be envy that they are able to work the system better than other foreign companies.

    Dragon in Dalian, labor unions can be of some utility, but there are two principles they carry out that cause undue hardship on scores of people, even their members, and that wage rigidity (wages can go up, but not down) and inflexibility in work rules. Both of those principles bring about high unemployment (East Germany is a good example. This was and is an area that desperately needed capital formation for job creation, but instead it received principles and resulted in high employment, etc.) I would at one time have said that you should go to the Soviet Union, but they collapsed, and North Korea is collapsing. The only place where a worker’s paradise exists is in fictional fantasy, but apparently you are an individual of high principles, and it is no skin off your nose if large numbers of people are unemployed because of your high principles.

  14. JFS, could you provide some source info regarding the illegality of overtime compensation for salaried employees? There are various exemptions that allow companies not to pay certain classes of employee overtime, but (I am almost certain) no across-the-board prohibition on doing so. Besides, the IRS couldn’t rule such a thing illegal (that would be a job for the legislature, all the IRS does is enforce the tax code), and it seems somewhat odd that the government would step in and tell companies that wanted to pay their employees more that they couldn’t.

    I know that comp time is not illegal (or the vast majority of tech industry companies are breaking the law, as that is the normal compensation for overtime that is unavoidable in such fields), and I just really doubt that overtime for salaried employees is illegal. Uncommon, yes, but not illegal.

  15. John B. I do not have in my possession the case law to document what I have written, but let me describe the events and the outcome. In the mid 1980s the IRS gave a regulatory ruling (which has the effect of law) concerning the compensation of exempt and non-exempt employees. At the time, the construction industry had a considerable work inventory and the common practice was to pay their supervisory personnel in the field over-time pay, even though they were exempt employees. The IRS ruled that if a company paid their exempt employees over-time pay, then that employee would be considered non-exempt and his pay would have to conform to all non-exempt rules and requirements. The companies could not afford that, and would not want to. At the time there was no specific ruling on comp time, but there was a lot of rumour that the IRS was also considering not allowing that also for exempt employees. That is why it is illegal in the United States, not so much as a legislative act, but a IRS regulatory ruling which changes the classification of the employee, thereby effectively not allowing over-time pay to staff. If companies do pay over-time to an exempt employee, they have put themselves into considerable financial liability, because now the IRS and the Labor department can go back and require all over-time worked to be compensated with required OT pay, and various other work restiction back dated and damages for failure to report, etc.

  16. Da Xiangchang Says: May 6, 2005 at 3:42 am


    I don’t have a single salaried friend in America who gets paid extra for overtime work. Generally, people in the States, if asked to work overtime, just bear it–just like the Chinese do. Of course, I don’t doubt Chinese companies work their employees harder than American companies, but overtime pay is a fantasy. And you’re right: you can only get away with your actions cuz you’re a foreigner. Which brings me to . . .

    Dragon in Dalian,

    Dude, I’ve never read such self-aggrandizing crap in my entire life! “I am a very strong character”; “I’m the opposite pole from my [weak-assed] Chinese friends.” Dude, why don’t you try some of your courage in an American company IN America? We’ll see how far you get–probably to the nearest unemployment office.

    There’s a tendency of laowais in China to suddenly think of themselves as larger than life, but dude, have a little humility. You’re NO better than the Chinese; from what I could see, a lot of you are worse (i.e., dumber and lazier than your coworkers).

    Some things to consider. For 99% of laowais in China, their “special skills” are:
    1) They can speak English real well.
    2) They are foreign, and therefore could run back to their own country if the Chinese screw with them.
    3) They are [mostly] Caucasian, and are hired for cosmetic reasons.

    That’s it. Any laowai who thinks he got hired because of any superior brain power or character on his part is out of his flipping mind. And the source of all their courage and principles is they can fly home. The Chinese don’t have this advantage; they have to compete in an arena where they have no natural advantages–i.e., they can’t speak English well, they can’t leave China, they aren’t Caucasian. The only way a laowai can experience this condition if he goes back to his home country and succeeds–and from what I could see, 90% of laowais in China are/were total failures at home. So please, no lectures. And enough of kissing one’s ass!!!

  17. I used to work for a law firm. That office, and most others that I know of, run a work week of 37 1/2 hrs so that, in the event that staff need to work a bit longer during the week, they did not typically go over the 40 hr mark. However, should any of these (salaried) employees go over 40 hrs, they put in for overtime pay. So I know that overtime pay (and comp time) for people on salary does happen in the states, it’s just not typical.
    I guess one of the reasons I was agreeing with Tim P and bringing the overtime thing here in the states to John’s attention is that I know the amount of work he has done here in the states – and just about all of his jobs worked out quite nicely to his advantage – so I wanted to give him a more current perspective.

  18. In early 2002 my previous employer issued a memo stating, I’m remember vaguely, that to avoid potential liability/violation/dispute according to something from US DOL, the company will pay 40-houred salaried overtime (1.5x) for company required weekend presence and regular+overtime (2.5x) for required/approved holiday presence. And in the same memo they also said partial day absence for Doctor’s appt etc cannot be counted towards whole or partial sick days. At the time I thought wow this was quite some socialist rules.

    In 2003 I joined the present employer and suddenly started being paid 37.5 hours a week. I thought this must be a capitalist way to avoid being calssified as employing 40-hr socialist workers but we never got the bottom of why 37.5 in spite of the company coworker’s off-the-record explanation of not paying the 30-min lunch breaks. Grace’s take is another angle but I still am not sure.

  19. The fact is, the trend is going towards less workers power. I think. If you think how most low skilled jobs work now, you get rostered on for the busy time and then sent home. Companies like starbucks will have you coming in and out twice a day, no pay in between, and no opportunity to get another part time job.

    But in terms of salaried positions I still think the trend is going that way — salaried positions in NZ don’t get overtime, and you are just expected to do it if necessary. Waged workers are legally entitled to over time, but no company in their right mind will actually allow their workers to use it. They will just have a larger pool of part time workers. I have had experiences in waged labour where I’m expected to work overtime, like until 10pm at night after a 9am start because of some stupid thing that has to be done before an arbitary deadline, and then forced to take a day off so that they don’t ahve to pay me time and a half. So you lose control over you life, and you don’t actually get compnesated for it.

    Probably a good analysis of the situation is Naomi Klein’s No Code — a kind of journalistic investigation into the state of world labour etc.

    It’s all related, the situation in China’s Wild West, and the deteriorating situations in the West… and the people with the power are the companies truly, since they can supersede national boundaries and find the best deal. If Chinese start sticking up for their rights, companies will jsut move to Burma/Myanmar and Vietnam… and so on.

    In NZ this is manifested among students as anti-Americanism… but I’m not really sure what it should be… I mean is it just bad luck that you are in the possie you are in? Or is there someway to switch the power relations???

  20. Grace, it appears, from the description you have supplied, that the company has reclassified, or at least in essence has done so, its employees to non-exempt. The reason for the exempt status was to not pay for over-time, or pay at straight time or some non-specified rate.

    Gin, you are correct, it is very socialistic (if we define socialistic as the ruling class interferring in the market place).

    Kaili, power between workers and owners is really defined by the supply/demand curve. If you have a skill set in which there is a lot of labor supply, but owner demand is more limited, no bargaining power to you. If you have a skill set in which there is a limited labor supply, but owner demand is great, then you have a lot of bargaining power. That goes for businesses, governments, labor unions, anything.

    Da Xiangchang, I’m with you on that. When I came to China this last time, I came on my own. Once here, I called up a company I had just worked for and told them I would set up a subsidiary for them here in china, no pay for me, but I would be an officer of the company and once income was coming in, I would share in the proceeds. They agreed, I did. Now, there are 1.3 billion yellow people here in China. When a foreign company comes here, they all look the same to them. That is where I come in. With a number of colleagues, all Chinese, all with good skill sets, together we meet the foreigners. I am the “white guy”, I speak English. Together we can acquire projects, working together. The loot is not great, but it is sufficient to keep us going, and we do a good job, both from a cost control and a quality control standpoint. The Chinese I work with, some are good husbands, some are good wives, some are good parents, others less so. Some are a little greedy, some are big time greedy. No different from any other collection of human beings, whether from North America, or Europe, or Australia, or Japan, or New Zealand, or Africa. But the big difference is that they have been through a “worker’s paradise” and are not fooled by all the propaganda. That is not to say they do not see injustice, they see people bullying others, doing misdeeds all the time, they just know the solution is not as proclaimed by the “progressive liberas”.

  21. JSF,

    Wage rigidity is usually only a cause of unemployment if your economy is in deflation, in which case pinning the blame on labour unions is a bit silly.

    And why such a negative reaction to Dragon in Dalian’s post anyway? The man threatens to sue his employer for not carrying out a contractual obligation. Well, rather than attack the man, why not suggest an alternate course of action. What would you do if you worked for a company and they unilaterally halved your salary halfway through your contract? Or if a major account refused to pay for goods received. My guess is that you’d stand on principle too and refuse to continue selling your goods and services at a loss.

    The only difference I can see is that example involves trade in goods and one involves trade in labour.

  22. Trevelyan: I made no reference about the individual with a contractual issue with his employer as related by Dragon in Dalian. I take Dragon in Dalian’s account on face value, but I do not consider it sufficient information to make a judgement in that matter; in other words, I haven’t heard the other side of the story and so without any opinion. As a personal bio note, I have served on jury duty judging contractual issues, and hearing the other side of the story can make a significant difference. (in that specific case, the “small guy” was in the right against the “big company”, on specific contractual issues.

    My railing against Dragon in dalian was a stance on Walmart being non-union. union or non-union does not make a company good or bad, being big or small does not make a company good or bad, being a union worker or an non-union worker does not make that individual good or bad, all that is trivial and I rail against PCness based on triviality.

    I presume what you are calling deflation is an economic contraction following an economic expansion (the classic business cycle, the expansion usually a result of government intervention, usually through a central bank creating cheap money, easy credit). If that is the case, then you are correct, but it is not silly. A significant reason for the high unemployment in europe today is because the wage rate is artificially above the market price for labor. If you have employment in a specific skill set that is artificially high, then you are OK, but you are are getting that extra money at the expense of another laborer with that same skill set who is unemployed. This is a very real problem. But then, Europeans are still Mercantilists at heart.

  23. Da Xiangchang Says: May 9, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    Very well said, JFS, though your grasp of economics is far beyond mine. 😉 Still, it’s always hilarious reading about European economic affairs since so many politicians there are so utterly incompetent, what with their railings against capitalism, globalization, all things American, etc. The German novelist Gunter Grass’s recent rant in the NY Times is typical:


    I’m rubbing my palms gleefully now. It’s going to be fun watching these people ruin their own economies within the next few decades.

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