China’s so-called “996” work culture that sees exhausted employees work 9am to 9pm, six days a week at some of the country’s largest corporations has been declared illegal by Beijing’s top court.
The Supreme People’s Court and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security recently published a list of “model” cases aimed at providing guidance to lower courts on reaching consistent decisions in disputes over workers’ rights.
In one case, the court describes how an employee passed out in a break-room at 5:30pm before dying of heart failure. The court ruled the death work-related and ordered the anonymised company to pay the victim’s family ¥400,000.
“Recently, extreme overtime work in some industries has received widespread attention,” the court said, adding that workers deserve rights for “rest and vacation”, and that “adhering to the national working hour system is the legal obligation of employers”.
“There is nothing wrong with advocating working hard, but it cannot be a shield for employers to evade [their] legal responsibilities,” the court also wrote.
Under Chinese labour law, employees should work for no more than eight hours a day and up to 44 hours a week, with overtime essentially limited to 36 hours a month.
However, working to an excess of these limits is often an unwritten rule within many of China’s largest employers.
Critics have blamed the brutal work schedule for impacting people’s work-life balance, damaging workers’ mental health, and even causing deaths among workforces.
The gruelling 72-hour working week is particularly prevalent in China’s fast-growing tech and gig-economy sectors where it has been championed by many business leaders.
In 2019, the billionaire co-founder of Alibaba, Jack Ma, caused controversy by describing excessive working as “a blessing”. “To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss,” Ma said.
“If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day. Otherwise, why even bother joining? We don’t need those who comfortably work 8 hours.”
“If you find a job you like, the 996 problem does not exist,” he added. “If you're not passionate about it, every minute of going to work is a torment.”
Adding his endorsement to the more work, less play culture within China’s Silicon Valley, Richard Liu, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, previously declared on WeChat that, “Slackers are not my brothers!”
Opposition among tech workers to the demanding 996 culture has steadily grown over recent years, culminating in an online protest in 2019.
Calls for Chinese employers to respect employee work-life balance grew louder at the start of 2021, after China’s fastest-growing e-commerce group Pinduoduo was rocked by the deaths of two employees.
In the early hours of 29 December 2020, a 23-year-old employee, called Fei, collapsed on her way home from work and later died. Less than two weeks later, an engineer name Tan, who had only been working for the e-commerce platform for six months, committed suicide.
A since-deleted post from one of Pinduoduo’s social media accounts led to a PR crisis at the company. Seemingly attempting to downplay Fei’s death, the post, which was later blamed on an external PR agency, read: “Look at the people at the bottom – who is not trading life for money[?] . . . this is an era where we fight with our lives.”
In response to increasing employee pressure and media scrutiny, ByteDance, owner of social media platform TikTok, and Lightspeed & Quantum Studios, a game developer owned by the internet group Tencent, have both called time on the pervasive 996 culture.