Have you heard about China’s 996 work culture? Jack Ma, China’s biggest tech tycoon, once famously tagged 996 as a ‘blessing’ for employees to be a part of. But, the recent clutter surrounding the extreme work culture of the country, especially in the tech and e-commerce industry, has been forcing the workers to protest against the below-par working conditions openly.
The dark side of working in China’s booming silicon valley is again put under the spotlight of public criticism. Expert fear that the pandemic has further encouraged the 996 work culture, blurring the line between the work life and personal life of the employees.
What is 996 Work Culture?
A joint statement published by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Supreme Court of China on August 28 flashes light on the irrational over times and labor laws violation, also labeled as the 997- working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week.
The dark side of working in China’s booming tech industry and startup was first put under the limelight in 2019 after creating project 996.ICU by a Chinese activist group. The project list of companies with some of the extreme working hours. Arguably, private Chinese firms have been grueling 996 business culture as a badge of honor for the past decades. Tech firms take pride in the extreme working hours of their employees and hail it as a competitive edge over their European and American rivals.
A slowing economy has been cited as a possible cause for the phenomenon—layoffs and freezes in new hiring force remaining employees to work longer hours. Covid-19, which began in 2020, has also made the job market even tougher, requiring employees — especially those with no family commitments — to work longer hours to prove their value.
In combination with this incentive, start-ups have also gone into overdrive in an attempt to outpace their rivals. For example, at Kuaishou, another short video platform prepared to go public in Hong Kong later this year, all employees were asked to work an extra day every two weeks.
In January 2021, two employees of a social e-commerce giant Pinduoduo enraged the public retaliation of the extreme work life. Surnamed Zhang, the death of the 22-years-old woman of the rapidly expanding sales firm follows by another young worker surnamed Tan, triggered the slowly simmering public anger.
Many popular tech companies, including Tik-Tok owner ByteDance’s employees, have come forth to show protest their anger over the unrealistic working times. The recent pay cuts of a slashing 17% fall soon after the policy change that require all the china-based workers to work for six days a week, every alternate week. A product manager of ByteDance said to Reuters, “My workload hasn’t actually changed. But unfortunately, the salary is lower.”
In most firms, employees claim that it is impossible for them not to work extra hours to complete their work given the heavy workload. In a survey from Zhilian Zhaopin in 2019, of the 10,000 respondents, 70% reported that they had gone unpaid for overtime work. But while many workers are protesting against the 996 work culture, many also claim it to be okay as long as they are paid well enough for the extra hours.
Though the tech Tycoon like Jack Ma, the founder of Ali Baba Groups, Richard Liu, founder of JD.com, and Zhou Hongyi, CEO of cyber, defended the hard-working schedule claiming that work-life balance is unattainable.
996 Work Culture: The Change is in Progress
According to some studies, working long hours may not increase productivity. American Journal of Epidemiology, for instance, found that 55-hour-week workers have worse short-term memory and less ability to recall words compared with those who work fewer hours than 41.
The 996 work ethic remains popular with many businesses, but a few “Buddhist entrepreneurs” have emerged. There are a few founders of start-up companies who have consciously laid back their work pace. Most are believed to be entrepreneurs who have already established successful companies and have no urgency to raise capital.
Despite being condemned to be illegal by the authorizes, the extreme culture continues to flourish in the private sector. As a result, many tech giants, especially the food delivery sector, are inculcating more mandated breaks for their employees.
The Chinese Communist Party campaigned to crack down on the country’s brutal 996 working hours. Ensuring labor protection and reducing inequality in the large tech companies seems to be under the focus of the government—the introduction of the three-child policy followed by the crackdowns of numerous tech-against and ed-tech sectors. The government is following a systematic approach to address the pressing issue.
The aging population of China is already the center of the concentration of the government. The extreme working hours are further becoming a stumbling block for the working professional, especially the middle class, from having children. By taking the steps against the 996 work culture, the government focuses on the citizen’s mental health.