It has been nearly two years since Chinese tech workers took to Github, a coding collaboration platform, to protest Chinese tech firms’ overtime work culture known as “996,” a work schedule of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. The virtual protest drew global press attention, but things have scarcely changed since then. Today, Chinese tech workers are still plagued by 996.
The problem came under public scrutiny again this month when it was reported that a 23-year-old employee of Chinese e-commerce firm Pinduoduo collapsed and died on her way home after finishing work at midnight on Dec. 29, 2020. The tragedy prompted Chinese authorities to start a probe into Pinduoduo’s working conditions, something the 2019 protest failed to achieve.
Meanwhile, poor working conditions for blue-collar workers for China’s tech companies continue to draw public ire, triggered by similar misfortunes, including the death of a courier at food delivery platform Ele.me at work earlier this month, and the self-immolation of another Ele.me deliveryman this week.
Bottom line: 996 is still a problem in China’s tech industry. It’s brutal to employees, but it is questionable whether overtime work pays off even for companies. Tech executives have implied that 996 is one of the key ingredients for China’s tech success, but economists argue that it is a symptom of low productivity.
A brief timeline
- It’s unclear when 996 was first introduced. Online sources say it can be traced back to the early 2000s.
- January 2019: Youzan, a Chinese e-commerce software provider, announces it will adopt the 996 work schedule. Employees take to social media to protest.
- April 2019: Chinese tech workers create a repository called 996.ICU on Github. The crowd-sourced database collects allegations about Chinese companies’ overtime work schedules. Among the companies named are some of the biggest names in China’s tech sector: social media giant Tencent, e-commerce behemoth Alibaba, and Bytedance, Tiktok’s Chinese owner. The project is “starred” 255,000 times on Github.
- April 2019: Meanwhile, tech executives jump to the defense of long work hours. Alibaba’s Jack Ma famously calls 996 “a huge blessing.” Richard Liu, CEO of e-commerce platform JD.com says people who slack at work “are not brothers of mine.” (Both links in Chinese)
- The topic soon died down without major changes made by companies. Despite condemnation from state-affiliated media, the government didn’t launch investigations into alleged violations of the labor law.
- H1 2020: Tech company workers complain that the 996 schedule followed them home as employees work from home during the pandemic.
- Jan 2020: Death of the Pinduoduo employee renews public scrutiny of tech firms’ overtime culture. In the same month, a second Pinduoduo employee dies after jumping from the 27th floor of an apartment building in Changsha, the capital of central Hunan province.
- Jan 2020: A Pinduoduo employee is fired after posting a photo of a co-worker being taken away by an ambulance from the company’s Shanghai headquarters. Pinduoduo says in a statement that he was fired for posting “radical” messages “in violation of the company’s employee guide.”
Changing demography: Shao Yu, chief economist at brokerage Orient Securities, wrote in a 2019 essay (in Chinese) that anti-996 sentiment reflects China’s demographic shift from labor surplus to labor shortage in the past decades.
- China reached a key demographic turning point in around 2010, wrote Shao, when the country’s unskilled labor market moved from surplus to shortage. Known as the “Lewis turning point,” this is a situation in economic development where surplus rural labor is fully absorbed into the manufacturing sector.
“Once the Lewis turning point is crossed, we enter the neoclassical development stage, in which labor supply shifts from surplus to shortage, and economic development no longer relies on the crude input of labor force, but on the improvement of production efficiency.”
“One result of the shift is that people start to pursue a quality life instead of basic needs.”— Shao Yu, chief economist at Orient Securities
However, China still has surplus skilled labor, including tech workers, curbing skilled workers’ “bargaining power,” Eli Friedman, associate professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations, told TechNode in an email.
“China’s higher education has expanded dramatically in recent years, creating a huge number of graduates competing for jobs, particularly in the prestigious big companies. In essence, the companies can get away with it because workers don’t have a lot of bargaining power in the marketplace. Companies of all kinds would like to extend their employees’ working hours, and the tech firms have been in a position to get away with it.”— Eli Friedman, associate professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations
How do they get people into 996? It’s not as simple as telling people to stay late at work. Tech companies try to “create consent” when forcing employees into overtime work, He Xuesong, professor at East China University of Science and Technology, wrote in a 2020 paper (in Chinese).
- He wrote that tech firms have widely adopted a project-driven work system. As a result, wrote He, “tech workers have to work overtime to catch up with the speed of projects.”
- He also mentioned that tech firms tend to create an “overtime culture” in which anyone taking time off is seen as not pulling their weight.
“The overtime culture makes it impossible for employees to choose whether to work overtime or not according to their own will. They are forced to choose to work overtime together with their supervisors and colleagues in the atmosphere of overtime.”— He Xuesong, professor at East China University of Science and Technology
- Not every tech office in China has such a culture. In August, employees of Microsoft China, a company whose workers usually go home at 5 p.m., called out colleagues who had formerly worked at Huawei and Alibaba to “stop the 996 work schedule,” saying that they were disturbing the company’s work culture.
Is it legal? On the front page of the 996.ICU project’s official website, organizers printed clauses found on China’s Labor Law that prohibit unpaid overtime work imposed on employees. In April 2019, online protestors called on people enraged by Jack Ma’s endorsement of 996 to send an official copy of China’s labor law to Alibaba’s headquarters.
However, China’s courts have held that forcing salaried employees to work overtime does not run afoul of China’s existing laws, according to a lecturer at Nanjing Audit University.
- Tech workers are usually paid fixed monthly wages, rather than hourly rates, writes labor law expert Li Gen. The law provides that hourly workers receive overtime pay for hours worked over 44 in a week or on weekends. However, provisions about whether salaried workers should be paid for their overtime work are “ambiguous and chaotic,” Li wrote in a 2020 paper.
- China’s Wage Payment Provisional Regulations, first released by the Ministry of Commerce in 1994, said its provisions about overtime pay “don’t apply to workers with irregular working hours.” This means that the provisions on overtime don’t apply to workers who are paid fixed monthly wages, wrote Li:
- “This provision has become the main basis for both the judiciary and scholars to hold the view that ‘workers working irregular hours are not required to be paid overtime wages’.”
Wrong metrics: Tech firms had to adopt the 996 work schedule to make up for low productivity, but longer working hours doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes, Zhang Yilai, an economic professor at the Business School of China University of Political Science and Law, wrote in a 2019 paper (in Chinese).
- China has a low GDP per hour worked, according to Zhang’s paper, meaning low productivity: China’s GDP per hour worked was $13.5 in 2017, while that of the United States was $72 and Germany was $69.8 in the same year.
- GDP per hour worked measures how efficiently labor input is used in the production process. Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that efficient work is associated with more time off—countries with better per-hour productivity tend to work less hours overall.
- Zhang wrote that Chinese companies don’t tend to think in terms of output per hour worked. Instead, they tend to use the concept of “output per person,” which simply divides total output by the number of employees, neglecting hours worked. Thus, he wrote, “it’s no wonder that enterprises utilize overtime work schedules like 996 to increase their ‘output per person.’”
But it just doesn’t work: Increasing labor inputs, including increasing working hours, may lead to a rise in output, Zhang wrote, but it “follows the law of diminishing marginal returns,” a theory that predicts adding an additional factor of production will result in smaller increases in output.
“Chinese enterprises still tend to use ‘output per person’ as an indicator of management, which prompted the rampant 996 phenomena. We should switch to the management idea of how to improve ‘GDP per hour worked’ in order to maximize the innovation potential of enterprises and the society. ”— Zhang Yilai, economics professor at the Business School of China University of Political Science and Law
Friedman of Cornell University said it’s unclear if 996 is good business, but he reckons that it’s an “ethical problem.”
“Why should people be forced to devote the overwhelming majority of their waking hours to work, even as these companies amass billions of dollars of wealth? Companies like Alibaba and Tencent can absolutely afford to have employees work the legally-mandated number of hours and still turn a profit.”— Eli Friedman