Bypassing visa regulations can be costly
Published: Jan 02, 2014 06:43 PM Updated: Jan 02, 2014 06:48 PM

Illustration: Lu Ting/GT

The Shanghai No.1 Intermediate People's Court this week rejected the appeal of a Chinese Australian who was sentenced to five years in prison by a district court for illegally selling entry and exit documents to five foreign household workers.

The appellant provided fake information on visa application forms 17 times to obtain employment permits and residence permits for five Filipino and Indonesian women who were working illegally in China, reported the Global Times. The man claimed in applications that the women worked as interior designers or as managers in foreign trade companies. He sold each permit at prices ranging from 3,000 yuan ($496) to 12,000 yuan.

A district court in Shanghai sentenced him to five years in jail after the man was caught by local police in March last year.

The appellant's lawyer argued that the district court's ruling was too harsh and asked for a more lenient sentence. Shanghai No.1 Intermediate People's Court told media that no errors were found in the original trial and it determined that all the facts were supported by relevant evidence.

There are a number of implications in this news item: Shanghai is considered an attractive location for many foreigners who may be able to earn easier money here than elsewhere; it's not always easy to obtain a residence permit or employment permit for a working visa; motivated by profit, agents are taking advantage of the market; the punishment for illegally obtaining permits can be tough and has gotten tougher in recent years.

Although the court did not reveal the fate of the household workers after they were caught using fake application material, we can assume that it will be much harder for them to stay or work in China with a tainted record.

Shanghai's streets are no strangers to foreigners. Laowai are everywhere in the city. They are diplomats working in consulates general of different countries; they are company executives or common employees in local branches of multinational companies; they are scholars and experts or other professionals needed by the city; they are overseas students studying at universities; they are performing artists active in the city's art venues; or they are just tourists staying for a short period.

But there are also many others who want to stay in Shanghai for various reasons even though they can't obtain the necessary documents to allow them to stay and work legally. My foreign friends told me that the black market for visa services is huge, as regulations have become stricter for foreigners applying for residence and work permits.

As a consequence, agents and companies offering visa services are booming. It's not uncommon to see advertisements for such services in magazines and websites that target foreigners. Insiders told me that their work is simply the skill of faking information. The price of obtaining a successful one-year working visa through such a service can reach 20,000 yuan. Not all foreigners can afford such an expensive service, so some of them choose to stay in the city with an expired visa.

Some foreigners work on a freelance basis for both foreign and Chinese companies, but short-term cooperation doesn't guarantee them an employment permit. Some work as language teachers in training centers, universities and schools. However, we have to admit that some institutions do not have strict hiring requirements for foreign teachers. They may just need a foreign face to appear in the classroom and in many cases can't afford to hire a full-time professional on a long-term basis. It's a common practice to hire temporary foreign teachers.

We also see foreigners performing in small theaters during weekends or holidays. They can't sell tickets for the performances because they are not allowed to earn money in this way according to entry and exit regulations. But there is always a charitable donation box where audience members can leave money to show their appreciation for the performers.

Even without a working permit, foreigners can enjoy life in the city so long as they have enough social resources. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to Shanghai. We can safely say that international metropolises worldwide all witness the same "illegal worker" problem, which is a reflection of the glamour of big cities where all kinds of people are drawn to pursue their dreams.

If one does not harbor a serious desire to stay in the city long-term, then bypassing exit and entry regulations may not lead to negative consequences. But if someone really loves Shanghai and wants to gain a foothold in the city, then he or she must be careful from the outset. As the Chinese saying goes, "One careless move loses the whole game."

Shanghai has a reputation for being an open city which boasts the spirit of welcoming all talents. But at the same time, Shanghai has a reputation for being prudent in abiding by regulations and laws.

My advice is if you really want to achieve something in Shanghai then take your residence and working permits very seriously to guarantee yourself a legal starting point here in the city.

The author is the managing editor of Global Times Metro Shanghai.