Chinese workers are right to protest ‘996’ work culture

Perhaps you are wondering what is the significance of ‘996’? I was initially puzzled myself. Then I learnt that in China it refers to the hours and days of work demanded of employees by the big tech companies” 9am to 9pm, six days per week. That’s 72 hours of work per week. The employees have no time for a life.

As James Stanier asks in his OneZero article: “Is this the price it takes to get ahead in the booming Chinese economy, or is this a symptom of a hustle culture that has gotten way out of hand?”

Jack Ma is in favour of 996

Stanier presents an excellent example of the mindset behind ‘996’ in the shape of Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba. This one of the world’s largest online retail companies. Ma, who is worth billions, has got himself into hot water with workers following his comments on WeChat (a Chinese social media channel) about 996 culture.

Some of you may be stunned by Ma’s comments: “Many companies and many people don’t have the opportunity to work 996. If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when can you ever work 996? In this world, everyone wants success, wants a nice life, wants to be respected. Let me ask everyone, if you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?”

No doubt Marx and Engels and a few others would have had a suitable answer for him. But Ma isn’t alone in supporting this approach. Stanier has uncovered emails from other Chinese companies, such as JD.com and Youzan that show management’s preference for working employees to the limit. One email from JD.com stated, “underperforming employees are those who don’t keep “fighting” to do more work “regardless of performance, position, tenure, personal well-being issues or family reasons.” And at a Youzan company event, the management demanded that employees follow a 996 routine.

Workers protest online

However, it seems that workers are not blindly accepting this regime. A website called 996.ICU, hosted by Github. The site’s name refers to “work by 996, sick in Intensive Care Unit,” which sums up the burnout and ill health workers suffer by working a 72-hour week.

The website highlights the fact that Chinese labour laws prohibit more than eight hours of work per day and 44 hours per week in a standard contract. Anyone working more hours should be paid overtime. It has a list of Chinese companies using the 996 practice, including controversial Huawei.

In the West we take the right to strike or protest as a given. But in China things are not so supportive of workers. It seems that the conversations online about 996 are being censored and blocked by the big tech companies: try to access 996.ICU via Tencent’s QQ browser and a pop-up message will tell you it is a “malicious site.”

Don’t let 996 become a global practice

It is somewhat understandable that China’s tech companies adopted the 996 regime in order to have first advantage in the global market. Some of them have been so successful that newer companies follow their strategy, believing that is the sure route to success. But as Stanier describes it, “It utilizes sheer brute force to beat the competition and capture a market.” And, while these punishing hours may work with repetitive tasks, how can designers and programmers maintain a high level of quality work under such pressure. To my mind, this is a form of modern slavery that will eventually damage China’s tech companies and perhaps foment a greater rebellion than protests on the Internet.

And we must watch out for it moving to the West. There are those in Silicon Valley who admire Jack Ma and have voiced an opinion that 996 is, “the same work ethic that built America.” We must maintain our sanity, and focus on strategy and efficiency rather than imposing insane working hours on employees. As the saying goes, you can’t flog a dead horse, and that is what tech companies are heading towards by treating their workers like machinery.

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