China’s biggest e-commerce platform Alibaba obliges its employees to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.
“To be able to work 996 (9 a.m. to 9 p.m./6 days a week) is a huge bliss,” Alibaba’s billionaire founder Jack Ma and China’s richest man said of his “infamous” work practice: “If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining.”
Ma further defended 996 by saying that such a work schedule has pushed Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent to grow to what they have become today, drawing on his own experience of working long hours in the industry.
“If you do not do 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 asked.
Chinese tech businesses usually expect their workers to spend long hours at the workplace to prove their commitment, their dedication, and their desire to succeed. Unfortunately, there is antipathy and anger among numerous young Chinese tech workers who feel they are entitled to have a better work-life balance for the sake of their own health. The escalating agitation with long hours comes at a time when several tech firms are having cut backs on benefits, decreased bonuses and several layoffs to counter the country’s worst economic slowdown in almost thirty years.
In March this year, a number of software developers took to the code-hosting platform Github to complain and openly show their disapproval of the 996 schedule, getting the attention of the global tech community. For these employees, working 996 all the time means running the risk of ending up in an “intensive care unit.” In their protest, they attached a full copy of China’s labour law disallowing more than 36 hours of overtime per month.
So far the online rebellion has attracted 211,000 “stars” on Github, prodding some Chinese web browsers to block the post.
In a recent study, it was found that “burnout” was the primary cause of 8% of the 101 start-up failures. But Jack Ma appears to have a different perspective. “If you do not pay the price, how will you gain?” he said.
Jack Ma: Hero or villain?
A former English teacher who co-founded Alibaba in 1999, Jack Ma turned out to become one of the wealthiest personalities in China. He admitted that he and his pioneer employees regularly worked long hours.
“In this world, everyone wants success, wants a nice life, wants to be respected,” Ma said.
“Let me ask everyone, if you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?” Ma referred to the tech industry today where some people are without jobs, or working at companies in search of revenue or facing closure.
“Compared to them, up to this day, I still feel lucky, I don’t regret (working 12 hour days), I would never change this part of me,” he said.
This month activists on Microsoft’s GitHub, the online code repository site, launched a project titled “996.ICU” where tech workers listed Alibaba as among the companies being ranked as having some of the worst working conditions within China.
Labour laws in China
It has been specified under Chinese labor laws that workers should not be made to work over three hours of overtime each day and not more than 36 hrs of overtime every month. Likewise the law stipulated that workers should get 150% of their usual salaries for worked overtime hours, 200% of their pay for working a day off without getting a comp day in return, and 300% of their pay if they work during a national holiday.
In the current situation, developers have accused the tech companies of “illegal activity” saying that they don’t usually get their overtime wages which the law has specified.
For the tech companies being accused, there are “escape routes” available for them, says Mary Gallagher, a political science professor and director of the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. Under local guidelines or by employers’ deviation, workers could be classified as either part of the standard system included in China’s labor laws, or as excluded employees who work seasonally or in white collar jobs where overtime hours aren’t computed. Gallagher explained, “Localities and employers can abuse the classification system in tech, for example, by classifying even lower level workers as “senior managers.” Then they will work a lot of overtime without additional compensation.”
Employees in China are generally undefended by unions, as the official trade union is supervised by the Chinese Communist Party and usually has a passive role when it comes to defending workers with their rights.
“The tech industry in China is very stressful, employees put in long hours and is highly competitive,” says China Labor Watch’s executive director Li Qiang. He details this by saying that, “Previously, we received some complaints from employees at tech companies. However, it was difficult to provide assistance, as their wages are actually much higher than the minimum wage standard and they willingly put in overtime hours due to the competitive environment. If they do not put in the hours, they can easily just be laid off. (Their contracts may state that if the employee doesn’t meet a performance target, they’d be laid off).” /TISG