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Chinese Tech Employees Protest Long Hours of Work in Online Campaign

At the same time, it is putting an uncomfortable light on the labor practices of China’s biggest high-tech firms

Joyce Huang contributed to this report.

An online campaign protesting the long hours Chinese high-tech employees work has gone viral on the Internet in China. At the same time, it is putting an uncomfortable light on the labor practices of China’s biggest high-tech firms.

The campaign known as 996.icu may have been small when it started on Microsoft’s code sharing website Github.com, but now, it is the second highest bookmarked project on the open source collaborative site. It has also spread quickly on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, where it is a hotly discussed topic. One posting alone had more than half a million views.

Chinese programmers came up with the ironic name 996.icu to draw attention to a work schedule reality and problem. The name is a pithy way of saying if you work the 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six-day-a-week work schedule, you’ll end up in the intensive care unit of a hospital.

And while the campaign takes aim at some of China’s biggest tech firms and includes a blacklist that details labor practices, organizers have been careful in their approach to addressing the problem.

chinese, online campaign
FILE – Staff members wait for visitors at a booth for Chinese microblogging website Sina Weibo at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing, April 27, 2017. VOA

“This is not a political movement,” the campaign said, in a bullet point outline of its principles and purposes. “We firmly uphold the labor law and require employers to respect the legitimate rights and interests of their employees.”

Beyond guidelines

China’s labor law states that employers can request employees to work overtime for an hour or even three hours a day, but no more than 36 hours of overtime in total over a month’s period.

Clearly, 72 hours a week, goes far beyond that guideline. Labor activists and lawyers, note however, that companies have many ways of getting around the law.

According to 996.icu, the 72-hour work week schedule has long been practiced in “secret,” but recently more companies have been openly discussing the arrangement.

The campaign notes that in March, e-commerce company J.D. Com said it had begun adopting 996 or 995 work schedules for some departments. Other companies made similar pledges at the beginning of the year.

Commenting on its 996 work schedule, J.D. Com said that it was not a mandatory policy, but that all of its employees should be fully committed (to their work).

chinese, online campaign
FILE – Workers are seen at a Foxconn factory in Longhua, Guangdong province, China, May 26, 2010. Foxconn is Apple’s main supplier of iPhones. VOA

Tougher times

Tech companies have always pushed their employees very hard and that has been a problem for many years, said Geoffrey Crothall, of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin.

What’s interesting about the anti-996 pushback is that wages in the tech sector were always much higher than anywhere else, he said.

“But now people are being laid off, people are not getting the same kind of bonuses, they are not getting the same pay increases that they are used to and so people are saying I am not getting paid as much, why should I work as hard,” Crothall said.

How big the movement’s impact will be remains to be seen. Crothall said it is still too early to say whether the campaign will be a game changer or short-term phenomenon.

Game changer?

The key goal of the anti-996 campaign is to get employers to buy into the movement by attaching an Anti-996 license to software to show their support for labor standards. A push that reportedly is already gaining some traction. Going forward, getting the campaign to move from online to offline will be a big challenge.

chinese, online campaign
According to 996.icu, the 72-hour work week schedule has long been practiced in “secret,” but recently more companies have been openly discussing the arrangement. VOA

It is also unclear how long the debate online will be allowed to continue in China’s tightly controlled cyberspace. Already, internet users have reported that some Chinese-made browsers are blocking access to the 996.icu page on Github.

A post on Zhihu.com, a Chinese question and answer website that asked what the electronics chain Suning’s view was on the debate was shut down. Earlier posts remain, but a message at the top of the discussion page reads: “this question has been closed for infringing on company rights.”

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Chinese state media seemed to voice support for the concerns of young high-tech workers and long work hours.

An editorial in the state-run China Youth Daily newspaper portrayed young tech workers as being besieged by the 996-work week. The piece argued that it was time for labor regulators to get more actively involved. It also noted that the 996-work week was not just a problem facing high-tech employees, but something workers in other sectors face as well. (VOA)

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