Putting an end to the overwork culture. A movement calling for more sustainable working hours is also gaining ground in China. Not unlike many of today’s protests, this drive in Dragon Country springs from the internet.
With a post on the GitHub platform for computer scientists, four students unveiled the ‘Worker Lives Matter‘ campaign in October, later changed to ‘Worker time‘ to echo the slogan of the American movement It proved to be a success: A few days after the launch, over 3,500 employees had already responded to the invitation and provided details of their working hours and mealtimes on the published Excel sheet, mentioning over 1,300 companies, mostly in the tech sector, but also oil, real estate and financial companies.
The movement strives to promote an eight-hour workday in a five-day work week, as stipulated by law.
The survey data show that employees in the large companies mentioned above work over ten hours a day, often finishing their shifts after ten o’clock at night. This is the infamous 996 practice: work runs from nine in the morning until nine at night, six days a week. A practice whose hours are now numbered as it faces its greatest obstacle: the Chinese Communist Party.
Working overtime is an enduring practice in the former Celestial Empire and elsewhere in East Asia. There is, however, one big difference: Unlike overtime in Japan, for example, where individual workers usually elect to work longer hours to complete a project and increase earnings, overtime in China is hardly ever paid.
Working overtime then becomes almost a compulsion at times: the Korea Times reports that at an IT giant based in the Shandong region of eastern China, employees were forced to work longer hours under company-imposed pressure. For instance, company facilities displaying threatening motivational posters: “If you are free, go and work overtime. Finish our unfinished tasks”, “You and I do overtime so that the ones who don’t cannot avoid doing it”, and “If you do overtime during the day, don’t nod off; if you do overtime at night, don’t fall asleep”.
Despite laws such as the one limiting weekly working hours to 44 and daily working hours to eight, and even a Supreme People’s Court ruling this summer invalidating employment contracts requiring 996, no real changes were made.
The practice, dating back to the Deng Xiaoping period, has solidified China’s place as one of the world’s greatest countries, yet it has also caused huge disparities in income, corruption and pollution.
The tactics of the Communist Party
The winds of change, however, now seem to be blowing. President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party are apparently resolved to definitively oppose this practice to which the country owes everything.
The reason for China’s present eminence comes from an extensive culture that elevated hard work and self-sacrifice to a moral value. Moreover, in a country with a population of over a billion, each citizen is educated to be able to bear the weight of competition: In order to stand out, have career opportunities and secure a decent salary, you have to be the best and therefore always study and work harder than others.
This mindset places a significant hurdle in the way of eradicating the 996 practice. However, the Party fears that in the long run the practice could have side effects on the morale of the population and even lead to a revolt. For this reason, Xi Jinping has endorsed the slogan ‘Common Prosperity‘. Xi Jinping’s vision seeks to steer China towards a state of shared equality and thus a redistribution of wealth, but in practice the goal of shared prosperity is translated into a stranglehold on China’s biggest companies that limits their decision-making autonomy and brings them back within the confines of Party authority.
The aim now is to push for development that takes into account the well-being of those who produce that wealth.
In an almost paradoxical way, therefore, both the Beijing government and the Workers Lives Matter campaign are on the same side.
History and goals of the campaign
The ‘Worker time’ campaign is very reminiscent of a similar past movement. The 996.ICU (Intensive Care Unit) campaign back in 2019 took off with a slogan that was very similar to the current one: ‘Developers’ lives matter‘.
The protest, however, failed to achieve much. “This project inherits its spirit, but eliminates its flaws”, said one of the founders of the new campaign on Zhihu, a platform similar to Quora. To paraphrase Mao Zedong, the enemies and friends of the campaign are now much clearer. “On one side we have all workers, without distinction, and on the other side there are the capitalists, who exploit workers in different ways depending on the sector”, the organisers said.
The movement strives to promote an eight-hour workday in a five-day work week, as stipulated by law. Following decades of rapid growth at the expense of workers’ rights, they now want to push for development that takes into account the welfare of those who produce that wealth.
One salient target is the tech sector, as it was among the first to massively exploit workers by imposing workdays that can exceed ten hours with very little rest. Yet now something seems to have changed.
The Excel document also contains a number of concessions to employees: 75% of participants mentioned two days off per week. As early as June, some large companies like Douyin even bade farewell to the six-day working week. The company Tencent has even instituted a health day, on which employees are asked to finish no later than six o’clock in the evening. In the section on the subjective assessment of the working environment, some report a good connection with the rest of the team, a particularly nice boss and good meals provided by the company. But there are also numerous complaints about unpaid overtime, fines for lateness, ‘strict attendance requirements’ or requests for flexibility, which involves being on call during days off and overtime for special needs.
“Many of us are aware of what we’re getting into when we decide to work for Internet companies”, a woman who has worked for many of these companies in China told TechCrunch. Many point out that this reform probably won’t affect their lives. “Nothing has changed for me or my team as far as I know. I work at weekends and will even work during the national holiday on 1 October. Just because it is officially a day off does not mean that business stops”, said an employee of a Chinese company listed in the USA.
The path to labour rights in China has still a long way to go.