China tech workers are pushing back against the industry’s notoriously long hours.
The digits 9-9-6 stand for 9am to 9pm, six days a week of work in China.
But now, it has become a rallying cry and a rare example of a labor protest for Chinese tech employees who are pushing back against the industry’s notoriously long hours, despite the country’s sophisticated government-backed censorship.
In recent weeks, what started out as a discussion or joke among a few tired developers and programmers on the code-sharing platform Github called “996.icu” – a reference to a comment by a programmer that working such a schedule could land an employee in the intensive care unit – has now become into a broader debate about working culture, conditions and practices in China’s most important industry and 150 of its biggest companies that push their staff to work excessive hours.
According to information from The Guardian, some of the companies included on the blacklist are Bytedance, video app TikTok, Huawei, the e-commerce platform Pinduoduo, JD.com, Xiaomi, Xiaohongshu, and Ant Financial, a financial services company affiliated with Alibaba.
Promoting wolf culture
Despite the harsh and long work hours tech employees have to endure, the real problem is the promotion these schedules receive.
The Chinese law states businesses should not allow their staff to work more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week, and overtime is restricted to 36 hours a month, but users continue to state that Chinese tech companies and executives constantly encouraging an obsession with work among their workers.
Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, has defended the idea of long hours in the office, calling the 996 schedule “a huge blessing”, saying workers should consider it an honor rather than a burden.
Richard Liu, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce company JD.com, also defended the 996 schedule, recalling how in the early days of the company he would wake up every two hours so that he could offer customers a 24-hour service.
The crossroads – supply vs demand
China’s technology industry is increasingly the engine of its economy.
China is actually the only country in the world that come close to replicating the success of Silicon Valley, partly because of workers’ willingness to submit to the grind, but as the country’s economy has slowed and bubbles have emerged in the tech sector, more employees are starting to doubt and reconsider the long working hours established by their employers.
“They [employees] were willing to accept long hours when business was good and they were being well rewarded but that is not the case any more. Staff are being laid off and pay is stagnating so staff are less willing to work as hard,” said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin.
The Chinese government strongly needs vigorous and long-working tech employees to maintain the rythm and keep meeting the rising standards despite that economic opportunities start to slow.
The machine cannot stop, it’s a cut-throat industry, but the status quo is also unsustainable.