The draining 996 work schedule—named for the expectation that employees work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week—has persisted in Chinese companies for years despite ongoing public outcry. Even Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma once called it a “huge blessing.” 

In early October this year, it seemed the tide might have been turning. After hopeful signs of increased government scrutiny in August, four aspiring tech workers initiated a social media project designed to expose the problem with the nation’s working culture. A publicly editable database of company practices, it soon went viral, revealing working conditions at many companies in the tech sector and helping bring 996 to the center of the public’s attention. It managed to garner 1 million views within its first week.  

But the project—first dubbed Worker Lives Matter and then Working Time—was gone almost as quickly as it appeared. The database and the GitHub repository page have been deleted, and online discussions about the work have been censored by Chinese social networking platforms.  

The short life of Working Time highlights how difficult it is to make progress against overtime practices that, while technically illegal in China, are still thriving. But some suspect it won’t be the last anonymous project to take on 996. “I believe there will be more and more attempts and initiatives like this,” says programmer Suji Yan, who has worked on another anti-996 project. With better approaches to avoiding censorship, he says, they could bring even more attention to the problem. 

Tracking hours 

Working Time started with a spreadsheet shared on Tencent Docs, China’s version of Google Docs. Shortly after it was posted, it was populated with entries attributed to companies such as Alibaba, the Chinese-language internet search provider Baidu, and e-commerce company JD.com.  

“9 a.m., 10:30 p.m.–11:00 p.m., six days a week, managers usually go home after midnight,” read one entry linked with tech giant Huawei. 

“10 a.m., 9 p.m. (off-work time 9 p.m., but our group stays until 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m. because of involution,” noted another entry (“involution” is Chinese internet slang for irrational competition). 

Within three days, more than 1,000 entries had been added. A few days later, it became the top trending topic on China’s Quora-like online forum Zhihu.  

As the spreadsheet grew and got more public attention, one organizer, with the user name 秃头才能变强 (“Only Being Bald Can Make You Strong”),came out on Zhihu to share the story behind the burgeoning project. 

“Four of us are fresh college and master’s degree graduates who were born between 1996 and 2001,” the organizer said. Initially, the spreadsheet was just for information sharing, to help job hunters like themselves, they said. But as it got popular, the organizers decided to push from information gathering to activism. “It is not simply about sharing anymore, as we bear some social responsibility,” 秃头才能变强 wrote.  

COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR

The spreadsheet filled a gap in China, where there is a lack of company rating sites such as Glassdoor and limited ways for people to learn about benefits, office culture, and salary information. Some job seekers depend on word of mouth, while others reach out to workers randomly on the professional networking app Maimai or piece together information from job listings.  

“I have heard about 996, but I was not aware it is that common. Now I see the tables made by others, I feel quite shocked,” Lane Sun, a university student from Nanjing, said when the project was still public. 

gainst 996 

According to China’s labor laws, a typical work schedule is eight hours a day, with a maximum of 44 hours a week. Extra hours beyond that require overtime pay, and monthly overtime totals are capped at 36 hours. 

But for a long time, China’s tech companies and startups have skirted overtime caps and become notorious for endorsing, glamorizing, and in some cases mandating long hours in the name of hard work and competitive advantage.  

In a joint survey by China’s online job site Boss Zhipin and the microblogging platform Weibo in 2019, only 10.6% of workers surveyed said they rarely worked overtime, while 24.7% worked overtime every day.  

Long work hours can benefit workers, Jack Ma

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By: Siyuan Meng
Title: China’s burned-out tech workers are fighting back against long hours
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2021/11/15/1039650/china-tech-workers-996-fight-back/
Published Date: Mon, 15 Nov 2021 11:00:00 +0000

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