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Drowning in overtime

Are opponents of Chinese tech’s 72-hour workweeks really ‘slackers’?

Drowning in overtime

A JD.com employee works at a company warehouse in Langfang, China. (Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images)

In China, as the economy slows, wages stagnate, and layoffs increase, workers at Chinese tech companies are pushing back against a grueling work culture known as the “996.” 

The term refers to working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week.

In late March, a group of anonymous developers created a project called “996.icu” on the code-sharing platform GitHub to document which companies demand 996 schedules. The group hopes to change tech industry culture so that employees can “go home at 6 p.m. without feeling sorry.” The project’s name is a joke among developers about how working 996 only leads to the intensive care unit. 

The effort has clearly hit a nerve: It quickly became GitHub’s most bookmarked (or “starred”) project, with 190,000 stars. Chinese tech workers added more than 150 companies to the “blacklist” and captured screenshots of messages from their bosses asking them to work late. Companies on the blacklist include e-commerce site JD.com; ByteDance, creator of the TikTok video app; Huawei; and Alibaba.

Workers at a Shandong software firm claimed the company required employees to work 100 hours of overtime a month, according to The Guardian. This exceeds Chinese labor law’s maximum of 36 hours of overtime a month.

Last week, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma defended the company’s grueling work schedule in a WeChat post: “If you join Alibaba, you should get ready to work 12 hours a day. Otherwise why did you come to Alibaba? We don’t need those who comfortably work eight hours.” He added that workers should consider it a blessing to be able to work 996. Without it, he wrote, the Chinese economy is “very likely to lose vitality and impetus.”

Richard Liu, the founder of JD.com, claimed that when he first started the site, he woke up every two hours in order to provide customers with 24-hour service. He called people unwilling to work long hours “slackers.” And if the slacking continued, “JD will have no hope and the company will be heartlessly kicked out of the market! Slackers are not my brothers!”

The discussion has led to an editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper, a government mouthpiece: “The legitimacy of the 996 work system is clearly questionable, and it is almost impossible for individuals to say ‘no’ to this mechanism.”

Because GitHub’s open-source codes are essential to Chinese tech companies, censors have not blocked access to the website, and “996.icu” remains accessible inside China. Katt Gu, a lawyer, and Suji Yan, CEO of digital privacy startup Dimension, created an “Anti-996 License” on GitHub that would require Chinese tech companies to commit to complying with labor laws before they can use open-source software. More than 90 projects on GitHub have adopted the license. 

In interviews with Chinese software engineers and programmers, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post found that all of them said they couldn’t concentrate for 12 straight hours. One worker at ByteDance said she spent downtime watching videos, online shopping, and napping.

“Technology shouldn’t be a labor-intensive industry; it should be a creative industry,” Gu told the Post. “Creative people need to take a rest.”

Meanwhile in Taiwan

Billionaire Terry Gou, the founder of Foxconn Technology Group, is planning a run for president in next year’s elections—and he claims to have the endorsement of the Chinese sea goddess Mazu. He will seek the nomination of the opposition Kuomintang Party, which advocates closer relations with China. Foxconn is an electronics giant, manufacturing 40 percent of all consumer electronics worldwide.

Comments

  • Narissara
    Posted: Thu, 04/18/2019 12:54 pm

    This is what happens when employees are treated like cogs in a machine instead of human beings -- and employers in China are not unique in that attitude.  

  • Bob C
    Posted: Thu, 04/18/2019 01:07 pm

    This what happens when Communism embraces Capitalism.  Instead of the people being enslaved to the Revolution they are enslaved to the Corporation.

  • JerryM
    Posted: Thu, 04/18/2019 08:09 pm

    To be sure, this is also happening in many western democratic capitalist countries.  I am thinking of the higher education sector in particular.  Should we be surprised that godless or increasingly godless societies treat people as expendable material objects?