December 2, 2021

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Against “996”: How Burned Chinese Tech Workers Want to Fight

“996”. This is the name of the work week that many employees in the Chinese technology industry still face. That means employees are expected to be in the company six days a week from 9am to 9pm. Jack Ma, co-founder of the Chinese internet company Alibaba, describes it as a “great blessing”.

But more and more young employees no longer want anything. Protests are currently being held in public. In early October, there were signs that the government might intervene. There were increased restrictions. In parallel, young tech workers launched a program to expose issues within the country’s work culture on social media.

The generally editable database of corporate practices went viral, revealing working conditions in many technology companies, and helping to attract 996 public attention. In its first week, the site received one million hits.

But the plan, initially called “Worker Lives Matter” (based on “Black Lives Matter”) and later “Working Time”, soon disappeared. The database and its associated GitHub repository page have been deleted – and online discussions about their careers have been censored by Chinese social networking sites.

The short lifespan of working hours underscores how difficult it is to deal with overtime practices, which, although fundamentally illegal in China, are still growing. However, some observers and victims suspect that this will not be the last anonymous project to take “996”. Programmer Suji Yan, who worked on another project against “996”, said, “I think there will be more such initiatives and efforts. With better approaches to avoid censorship, they can draw even more attention to the problem.”

“Working Time” began with a spreadsheet published in the Chinese version of Google Docs, Tencent Docs. Shortly after its release, it was filled with lists of companies such as Alibaba, Chinese search engine provider Baidu and e-commerce company JD.com.

“From 9am to 10:30 pm or 11pm, six days a week, managers usually go home after midnight,” said technology company Huawei.

Another record states, “10am to 9pm. Closing time is 9pm, but our team will be on the offensive until 9:30 pm or 10pm” (“Involution” is the Chinese internet slang for “irrational competition”). .

More than 1,000 entries were added in three days. A few days later, “working hours” became a hot topic in China’s Quora-style Zhihu online forum. As the spreadsheet grew and received more publicity, a co-organizer, who means “bald man is strong” in Chinese, approached Jihu to tell the story behind the project.

“The four of us are recent university and postgraduate graduates, born between 1996 and 2001,” the bald man said. At first, the table was only for information sharing to help job seekers like you, he said. But when “working hours” became popular, the organizers decided to move from data collection to operation. “It’s not just about exchanging information anymore, we also have a social responsibility,” he wrote.

In China, where there are no business review websites like Glassdoor, this table fills a void and there are few ways to learn about benefits, office culture and salary. Some job seekers rely on word of mouth, while others blindly target workers through the professional networking application Mimai or compile information from job vacancies. According to Chinese labor laws, a typical working day is eight hours a day and a maximum of 44 hours per week. Extra hours must be paid for overtime – and the number of monthly overtime is limited to 36 hours.

But China’s technology companies and start-ups have long exceeded the time limit, and are known for allocating more time, “glorifying” and in some cases forcing, in the name of extra hard work and potential competitive benefits. In a joint survey conducted in 2019 by Chinese online job transfer employer Jipin and micro-blogging site Weibo, it was found that only 10.6 percent of the surveyed employees did not work overtime, and 24.7 percent said that they worked overtime every day.

Jack Ma said in 2019 that even long working hours can be beneficial to employees. “Because you’re here, instead of complaining, you should be working on Rhythm 996,” Ma said in a speech to an internal Alibaba meeting. Realism. “Your 10 years of work experience will be the same as others’ 20 years.”

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

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But some sections of the tech community have already begun to struggle. At the beginning of the year a user set up the “996.icu” domain. A few days later, a warehouse of the same name was set up at GitHub. The name implies that if a person follows the 996 lifestyle, the risk will be the same as if one went to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU). GitHub page Called. It lists working hours regulations under Chinese labor law and lists more than 200 companies that implement 996.

Within three days, the repository received over 100,000 bookmarks, making it the most used project on GitHub at the time. After a while, it was blocked by Chinese browsers like QQ and 360 and eventually completely disappeared from the Chinese Internet (which is still available through VPNs).

The 996.icu program was soon followed Anti-996 license. The software license, developed by attorney Yan & Gadgu, allows developers to restrict the use of their code by companies complying with labor laws. In total, 996 anti-licenses have been approved by more than 2,000 projects, Yan said.

Today, 996 are under increasing scrutiny by Chinese officials and the general public. Xinhua, a state-run Chinese newspaper, has denounced the overtime culture and backed short working hours, following reports that a former employee of agricultural technology firm Pinduoduo had died of overtime in December 2020.

On August 26, it was released by the Chinese Ministry of Social Security and the Supreme People’s Court General guidelines Examples of overtime cases in which companies and individuals are advised to be aware of labor laws. But while officials and the state media appear to be picking up momentum, it is unclear when or when the provisions making 996 illegal will be fully implemented.

Some companies change that. Anthony Cai, Baidu’s current employee, says six days a week is a big day at big companies these days. This year, several technology companies, including Dictok’s developer Bite Dance, have removed the “big / small weeks” that refer to working six days a week in China. “Working on Saturdays is not so popular,” says Kai. “However, late stay in the office is still common, which usually does not count as extra time.

In the future, companies will have to cut even more time to attract young applicants. Faber Fu, a university student in Nanjing, says he is not too keen on accepting the 996 when he enters the job market. “If I get a lot of money, I can consider it,” he says. “But that’s not 100 percent my long-term plan. Work-life balance is very important to me.”

Gary Cooper, a professor of corporate psychology and health at the Alliance Manchester School of Business in the UK, hopes that Chinese companies will move away from the culture of overtime when they see evidence of the long hours ‘effects on workers’ health and productivity. “There is no evidence that productivity increases when people work long hours – on the contrary,” he says.

Meanwhile, the younger generation “will not stop fighting for a better quality work life,” Cooper said.


(B.Sc.)

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