The harsh 996 culture behind Chinese tech firms

Tram Ho

The dark side of China’s flourishing tech companies comes to light only when an employee dies. In January this year, two employees of e-commerce firm Pinduoduo died, one collapsed on the way home, the other committed suicide.

Pinduoduo is not the only Chinese technology company accused of forcing employees to work too hard. Short video platform Kuaishou asks all employees to work one day overtime every two weeks before its Hong Kong IPO on February 4. At ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, employees have to work six days a week until midnight, while Huawei offers employees a six-day work week every month for extra bonuses.

Văn hóa 996 khắc nghiệt phía sau các hãng công nghệ Trung Quốc - Ảnh 1.

Delivery worker Meituan during a morning meeting in Beijing. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Culture 996 has become an unwritten law for many tech companies in the mainland. Despite employees complaining about it, they fear the labor market will get worse due to the pressures of Covid-19.

What is 996?

The phrase 996 describes the harsh work schedules at Chinese tech firms, where employees work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week or even longer. In some places, such as startups, aspiring young entrepreneurs turn 996 into success. Somewhere, at established giants, employees from each department race to work overtime to prove their enthusiasm and loyalty.

Employees often assume that they should stay after formal work hours, regardless of whether it results in higher performance or not. In addition, there is pressure from colleagues. For example, an engineer at a Beijing cloud service provider in a 2019 interview revealed that their manager patrols the office at night to see who’s available and for job ratings. Another engineer at Baidu said leaving the office at 6 p.m. is considered too early, even if the company doesn’t officially adopt 996.

Chinese media and Internet users have made many reports about the deaths of young technology workers due to excessive workload. In 2015, a Tencent programmer suffered a stroke and died while walking with his pregnant wife. A year later, the 34-year-old deputy editor-in-chief of the online platform Tianya suffered a fatal cardiac arrest at a Beijing subway station. In 2018, a 25-year-old employee of drone maker DJI also died of cardiac arrest.

According to SCMP, so far, no technology company has been fined for encouraging or forcing employees to work overtime.

Since when is 996 controversial?

In spring 2019, an anonymous Internet user launched an online protest on GitHub, Microsoft’s global platform for programmers, arguing 996 threatens the health of Chinese tech workers. The user, nicknamed “996icu,” claims anyone on a 996 schedule is at risk of going to the intensive care unit (ICU).

The topic quickly went viral and was hotly discussed on major social networks such as WeChat, QQ and Zhihu. The story received sympathy from the tech community across the country, who shared their own experiences. The GitHub project also includes a blacklist of companies that require extended employment, many of which are well-known Chinese names, as well as a list of companies with more flexible schedules, most of which are foreign.

Some Chinese browsers such as QQ Browser, 360 Browser and Xiaomi smartphone browser have blocked access to on GitHub.

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Alibaba founder Jack Ma supports the culture of 996. (Photo: Xinhua)


The reaction of China’s technology leaders?

When the controversy heated up, Jack Ma voiced his support for the 996 culture. The billionaire called it “a blessing that many companies and employees do not have the opportunity to possess”. He believes that this work ethic has helped the tech giants reach the scale and achievements they are today.

He also urged Alibaba employees to embrace the 996 culture. “If you join Alibaba, you should be willing to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why would you come to Alibaba? We don’t need people who just want to work comfortably for eight hours a day.”

Zhou Hong Yi, Director of Qihoo 360, also defended the culture of 996, asserting that a balance between personal and work life cannot be achieved.

Zhu Ning, founder and CEO of e-commerce company Youzan, once wrote on WeChat in early 2019: “If you don’t feel pressured to work at a company, you should quit because your boss is not working. died”. Candidates applying for jobs here are also informed that former employees consider long working hours a habit.

Why does 996 still exist despite objections?

The 996 culture has its roots in the early days of China’s internet boom, when startups backed by venture capitalists had to prove results, leading to long working hours. Some experts attribute the phenomenon to the country’s slowing economic growth.

As companies lay off employees and freeze hiring, those who remain are forced to take on greater workloads. The Covid-19 raging from 2020 has also created a tougher job market, forcing employees – especially young, unmarried people – to work overtime to prove their worth.

At the same time, the prospect of monetizing a public listing forces startups into a race to beat their rivals, such as Kuaishou’s example above.

996 can be changed?

Some studies show that working longer does not mean higher performance. A survey by the Journal of Epidemiology (USA) found that middle-aged workers who worked more than 55 hours a week had worse short-term memory and reduced memory capacity than those who worked less than 41 hours.

Currently, some employers pursue a different approach, calling themselves “Buddhist entrepreneurs”. They consciously adopt a slower pace, believe they can succeed, and aren’t in a rush to raise capital.

In theory, Chinese labor law prohibits employees from working more than eight hours a day and 44 hours a week. Overtime must not exceed 36 hours per month. A survey by online recruitment platform Zhilian Zhaopin in 2019 showed that more than 70% of 10,000 respondents said they were not paid for overtime.

Some experts see the lack of enforcement by the authorities as a major obstacle in changing the culture of overwork. Some tech workers admit that with a heavy workload, they can’t get it done without overtime. Others can tolerate the “heavy” schedule as long as the rewards are good enough.

“If the salary is high, 996 is acceptable,” a Shenzhen tech worker told SCMP.

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Source : Genk