Chinese developers protested insanely long work hours. Now the nation's courts agree

'996' culture and its assumption of six twelve hour days - without overtime - labelled abusive and illegal


China's Supreme People's Court and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security have released a lengthy document condemning China's "996" work culture as labour violations that deprive workers of overtime payments.

The 996 work schedule describes working from 9AM to 9PM, six days a week, and is common in the Chinese technology industry.

But in March 2019, a protest against the concept was started in a GitHub that chronicled Chinese programmers' stories of abuse (and naming and shaming the startups at which they had worked).

Jenny Jing Wang, an academic studying the topic, referred to the policy as "modern day slavery" in a 2020 journal article.

And while many think it's crazy to work these long hours, employees often do so – either because they don't see any other option, or on the promise of future pay-offs in the form of stock options. The options rarely materialize, despite the tech companies themselves often thriving.

The cases detailed in the Chinese court document filed last week include employees illegally pressured to sign agreements giving up overtime pay, employees being cheated out of their overtime pay, and even one person who suffered from heart problems while at work, culminating in their collapse in the wee hours of the morning and subsequent death.

The message from the court was clear, as the judgments were full of company fines and corrective prescriptions. It may signal a future firmer stance against labour law violations.

Regarding one case, the court said the following (translated from Mandarin):

In order to seek enterprise development and shape corporate culture, we must keep the bottom line that does not violate the law and infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of workers, and should, on the basis of adhering to the principle of distribution according to labor, stimulate the subjective initiative and creativity of workers through scientific and reasonable measures, and promote enterprise development and safeguard workers' rights and interests in an integrated manner.

The timing of the court order comes not only amid public backlash on the grueling hours, but also at a time when Beijing is seeking to rein in Big Tech. It has done so by blocking IPOs, monitoring monopolistic opportunities, and regulating sloppy data governance.

China's crackdown on online activity continued last week, with new rules targeting citizen journalists who misrepresent financial and economic policies, as well as the platforms on which they operate. The regulations target accounts on WeChat, Weibo and other platforms accused of carrying misinformation.

Once a country with a strict one-child policy, China now faces an ageing population and shrinking workforce. In response, Beijing has compensated for the restrictions of the past by allowing three children per couple – an effort that seems incompatible with 996 work culture.

While the government can regulate and fine companies for wage abuses and long work hours, changing corporate cultures is another game altogether.

Alibaba's Jack Ma had many things to say in the past about 996, sometimes endorsing it before back-tracking. Ultimately he communicated a philosophy that people should want to work long hours – especially in their youth – and that a job you love enough to work 12 hours a day six days a week or more is a blessing.

"If you don't work 996 when you are young, when will you? Do you think never having to work 996 in your life is an honour to boast about?" Ma told employees in a company speech.

Three days later he added a caveat:

If you find a job you like, the 996 problem does not exist; if you’re not passionate about it, every minute of going to work is a torment.

South Korea has also found itself in a dark night of the soul over its work week. In July, the country reduced the number of hours employers can require of their workforce from 68 to 52.®

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