I am a third-time postdoc, and had never before had problems with getting paid. For almost two years now I have been a postdoctoral fellow at a university in southern China. This is my first experience in Asia, and thus I am not sure of how common the situation I am facing is. Communication is arduous, not due to language differences, but a number of cultural traits which are hard to explain.
At the end of my previous contract, I contacted many institutions for job opportunities. I did not plan on accepting yet another postdoc, but these colleagues here convinced me (> 100-long-email negotiation) that I'd be paid a good salary, enjoy a good work environment, and easily take an assistant professor position as soon as conditions allowed. To make it clear, I signed a postdoctoral fellow contract for a 120k RMB salary per year, with a promise of an extra 60K RMB per year to be provided by the college. There are some extras on the contract, such as 10K RMB for purchasing a laptop, and reimbursement for moving expenses (to date, I never saw those).
I was instructed to apply for a visa after signing the contract. I needed a certain official document about which they claim they were unaware. After further email exchanges where I had pictures and links about the document, it took 2 months to get it by mail. This delayed my arrival btwo 2 weeks from the start of the contract, but over email they said that was no problem. In reality, they never paid me that 1st month while dismissing it by saying "probably will fix that later".
Another full month came without any pay, and apparently the administration couldn't agree with the bank on spelling my name, but I never knew the details. After many trips to the administration to find out what was wrong, I was paid ca. 5,500 RMB for the month. I tried to complain but no one would understand me. Then the confusion started.
I will try to summarise below as best as I can. It is really complicated, and everyone tells me "not to worry".
- I get paid ca. 5K RMB as fixed salary on the 5th-6th every month.
- Around the 25th they pay me another instalment which is highly variable, typically within 1.5K-4.2k RMB. (Tends to be higher before long holidays).
- After one year I got ca. 90K RMB, irregularly paid out of the contract's 120K.
- Only after aggressively complaining, hinting a lawsuit, I received 100K out of the promised extra 2x60K. (divided in 3 irregular transfers, made by some 18-y-old undergrad, late at night)
I get more info only by pressing uncomfortably hard. I was once told I'd get 13 payments per year (never happened). Then I was told some unspecified large sum is retained to fund my expenses to any trips/conferences I might wish to attend. I was not clearly informed of when or even if I would get the withheld amount. Few other postdocs openly discussed this problem with me, and they said (one Chinese and one foreigner) they had the same issue. The Chinese postdoc recently was offered to move to a new salary regime where he now gets a fixed, higher salary (took him months to tell me).
To make things even more complicated:
I have found in my internal access system some separate account originally containing 40K RMB under my name (some "funding" mentioning my name), which is being used to apparently pay internal procedures. Upon asking about it, I was told to "not worry about that". There are currently <20K RMB left in this virtual account.
A PI which is not the person I dealt with over emails is the person who signed my contract. According with local standards I am then supposed to consider him my "leader". This person is frequently absent, shows no interest in what I do, and refuses to reply any email about my salary/project. Now I am pushed to list this PI's name as last author in anything I write. My first paper from here is about to come out, and at the last minute I am requested to ask the editor to finally list this PI as the corresponding author.
I feel like I am being constantly blackmailed over retained promised salary payment. My visa expires in a few months. They passively owe me >80K RMB and I do not know what to do. I hear that suing is usually not advisable in China as lawyers ask for huge fees and judges tend to favor local standards and influential institutions/persons, plus the defendant will typically delay forever by refusing to engage.
I wish to ask whether anyone here had a similar situation, and would know what could be done? Particularly in China?
Before you ask: further unmentioned issues not directly related to salary finally did not make this a "healthy work environment". I am now informally told that "it is really hard for foreigners to get accepted locally as assistant professor because getting a major NSF grant is required, and that depends on significant connections (guanxi) and understanding of Chinese language/culture". Not that I was planning on staying longer, but just to clarify.
* UPDATE * 02/04/2018
I finally left China yesterday. I will summarise the chain of events and the current situation. I think I understand most of their scheme now.
About two months prior to my departure I started pressing the administration about the rest of the salary. They insisted a large, unspecified part, would be paid as soon as I finished all necessary exit procedures correctly. Moreover, the secretaries said a part of the payment would be retained as "taxes," but they were unable to specify what percentage nor type of taxes. Exit procedures included preparing lengthy reports which had not been requested before. At the same time they further reduced my salary, interrupting the last "2nd parts of salary" due to "unforeseen reasons" and said they'd try to fix that also at the very end!
After I quickly assembled reports and delivered all documents (signed by several professors who make it clear they are making some favor), the administration agreed to finally calculate how much they owed me. I went there several times only to hear back more nonsense. For instance they kept remarking they might not pay me for the last month "because I had delivered a final report prior to the end of the contract period" as they instructed!
Finally, after pressing them considerably, within 10 days of my departure they provided me their numbers. They would pay me a "reward" for completing documents, plus one month of basic salary, and promised a large sum adding up to the final amount... in exchange for invoices.
I confirmed with responsible PIs the need for invoices. They explicitly instructed me to buy invoices from companies they'd recommend by paying 10-15% of the declared value to "reimburse the rest of my salary". They insisted this is common procedure, offering help to "find invoices to exchange". I was shocked and refused.
I went to the Principal Office with a complaint letter, in English and Chinese. I spoke with the sub-secretary for 1h. They explain that what is declared on the contract as salary includes a significant amount which is to be spent with research only, and that invoices ensure the university can pay/reimburse. They say this is detailed in rules in Chinese in some book somewhere if anyone had questions. I made it clear nobody had ever clarified that, it should be explicated in the contract, and that I could not deal bogus invoices in exchange for payment. I told them I could only provide true invoices, which they accepted as a clean solution. They thanked me for "bringing me a major misunderstanding to their attention".
Finally I purchased credit for services with biotech companies with about 5k USD off my promised contractual salary. Got the "rewards" plus some delayed payments. It is not crystal clear from the numbers where is the last month of payment (I haven't had the guts to sieve that now).
After being paid I contacted my Consulate reporting the events, letters. Mainly to ensure some authority was aware in case of any political revenge (e.g. unfair accusation, arrest). I finally left without any events. I avoided physical contact with the PIs, who refrained from answering any further emails after I refused to purchase invoices. A few hours ago the Consulate notified the situation to the local Foreign Affairs Office, and emphasised it looks very serious.
This is where I stand. I hope something will be done to at least stop these schemes ongoing with other postdocs. I am moving to publish the story in the international press, and possibly file everything to the Ministry of Education right after. I thank everyone here for providing insights and suggestions. Keep an eye on the news.