Work­ing 9 to 9: China’s tech ex­ec­u­tives, work­ers clash over 72-hour work­week

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - NATHAN VANDERKLIPPE

Cheng Zheng has few il­lu­sions about the pun­ish­ing sched­ule he ex­pects some of his em­ploy­ees to keep: a 72-hour work­week that has be­come the sub­ject of a ris­ing out­cry in China.

Yes, work­ers strug­gle to stay awake and focus af­ter too many hours in the of­fice, erod­ing their pro­duc­tiv­ity. Yes, the rigours of a 996 sched­ule – so-called be­cause it in­volves be­ing at the of­fice from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week – has led peo­ple to quit jobs in the coun­try’s com­pet­i­tive tech in­dus­try. Yes, 996 could be con­sid­ered ex­ploita­tive. And yes, many peo­ple think it’s il­le­gal, a con­tra­ven­tion of China’s worker-friendly laws that gen­er­ally place a 44hour limit on weekly hours, save for com­pa­nies that ob­tain spe­cial per­mis­sion or pay over­time, which many tech firms do not.

“But to be hon­est, most com­pa­nies that op­pose 996 are now bank­rupt,” said Mr. Cheng, the founder of DDD.On­line, a Chi­nese aug­mented re­al­ity com­pany. “Given the big pres­sure on star­tups in China, and the competition we face, we have no choice but to squeeze out more work and raise out­put.”

Mr. Cheng is in il­lus­tri­ous com­pany. Some of the best­known names in China’s high-tech sec­tor have adopted the 996 work-week – and now they’re de­fend­ing it, amidst a grow­ing on­line protest by tech work­ers.

Late last week, China’s best-known bil­lion­aire, Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma, told em­ploy­ees “be­ing able to do 996 is a huge bless­ing,” in a re­join­der then shared pub­licly by the com­pany. “If you don’t work harder and spend more time than oth­ers, how can you achieve the suc­cess you want?”

He added: “If you don’t pay the price, you can’t have a re­turn.”

An­other of the coun­try’s bil­lion­aire tech stars, JD.com founder Richard Liu, last week pub­licly dis­par­aged the ma­lin­ger­ers whose num­bers, he said, have grown on his com­pany’s ros­ter. “If this car­ries on, JD will have no hope. And the com­pany will only be heart­lessly kicked out of the mar­ket. Slack­ers are not my brothers,” he said.

It all amounts to an un­apolo­getic re­pu­di­a­tion of tech work­ers who have gath­ered on GitHub, the Mi­crosoft-owned on­line code repos­i­tory, to lament the lengthy hours in the in­dus­try, par­tic­u­larly as tech lay­offs in­ten­sify competition for high-pay­ing jobs.

Many of the sto­ries of over­work have ac­cu­mu­lated un­der the la­bel “996.ICU,” a joke that such a sched­ule can re­sult in hos­pi­tal­iza­tion. Work­ers have gath­ered a whitelist of com­pa­nies that es­pouse a work-life bal­ance, but have also built up a “996.Leave” page that com­piles in­for­ma­tion on over­seas work­ing con­di­tions for those who want out, in ad­di­tion to doc­u­ment­ing health con­cerns and telling sto­ries of per­sonal dif­fi­cul­ties.

The de­bate over long work hours in tech is not unique to China. In Silicon Val­ley, the 80-hour work-week is al­ter­nately de­scribed as in­nate to suc­cess – and in­hu­man. Crit­ics some­times cite a 2014 study by Stan­ford econ­o­mist John Pen­cavel that re­lied on data from First World War mu­ni­tions mak­ers to de­ter­mine that there is lit­tle dif­fer­ence in a per­son’s out­put be­yond 56 hours a week.

But mod­ern of­fice jobs are far re­moved from cen­tury-ago fac­to­ries, and Chi­nese ex­ec­u­tives say they have am­ple rea­son to de­mand long hours.

Gao Song launched Se­b­long Tech­nol­ogy, an app de­vel­op­ment firm, in 2015, and saw such im­me­di­ate suc­cess that he fig­ured he could loosen the reins. “I de­cided to slow down and give peo­ple more time to rest,” he said. But soon af­ter, “I no­ticed that morale be­gan to worsen and peo­ple no longer paid at­ten­tion to their work. So in­stead of mak­ing things more ef­fi­cient, we ac­tu­ally risked los­ing ev­ery­thing.”

In 2018, Mr. Gao placed man­agers on the 996 sched­ule. Profit soared. “996 can­not by it­self solve the prob­lem of worker ef­fi­ciency. But it does give em­ploy­ees more time to think about their jobs,” he said.

Se­b­long’s Snail Sleep app is cur­rently among the top 20 free apps for iPhone in China, according to App An­nie data. And the app has given Mr. Gao a unique win­dow into the de­mands of mod­ern life in his coun­try. In ex­am­in­ing 238 mil­lion sleep re­ports last year, Mr. Gao said, he dis­cov­ered that “Chi­nese peo­ple are the hard­est-work­ing peo­ple on Earth. We sleep even less than the Ja­panese.”

The de­mand­ing sched­ule has deep roots. China only adopted a two-day week­end in 1995 and “996 is like go­ing back to old habits. It’s not a new crea­ture,” Mr. Gao said.

In the tech in­dus­try, the long hours are of­ten linked to Huawei, whose fa­mous “wolf” cul­ture – blood­thirsty, tire­less – is com­monly cred­ited as the cor­po­rate inspiration for 996 sched­ules else­where, par­tic­u­larly since many see Huawei as China’s fore­most in­ter­na­tional suc­cess.

Even crit­ics see a link be­tween lengthy hours and that com­pany’s as­cen­dancy.

“Huawei is fa­mous for this, and it is a very big ad­van­tage over Western com­peti­tors like Eric­s­son,” said Jude Zhu, the founder of Green­stone Con­sult­ing, which coaches earlystage com­pa­nies in China.

But, he said, “we are work­ing longer and longer. And peo­ple’s health is wors­en­ing. Fam­ily re­la­tion­ships are be­ing put in jeop­ardy.” Tech work­ers ex­change sto­ries of col­leagues who died from ap­par­ent over­work.

In that light, Mr. Ma’s em­brace of 996 sounded un­sym­pa­thetic. “You should at least let your em­ploy­ees know that you care about their health,” Mr. Zhu said.

Chi­nese fo­rums, too, are filled with anony­mous ac­counts from work­ers who be­lie the idea that more hours mean more work. In­stead, they doc­u­ment time spent brows­ing so­cial me­dia, de­lib­er­at­ing over take­out or­ders and nap­ping.

Yet the cor­po­rate em­brace of a morn­ing-to-night sched­ule comes as lit­tle sur­prise to Dog­son Zhuge, one of the peo­ple be­hind 996.ICU. He couches his crit­i­cism in Marx­ist terms, re­fer­ring to tech bosses as “cap­i­tal­ists.”

“In the his­tory of Western coun­tries, there was also once a time when en­trepreneurs ex­ploited work­ers like crazy,” he said.

Now, he and a hand­ful of oth­ers have em­barked upon a project to push for change in China. They plan to start with an in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing cam­paign, in the hopes that nam­ing com­pa­nies can shame them into amend­ing their prac­tices. They also in­tend to pre­pare pro­pos­als for the coun­try’s leg­is­la­tors to con­sider next year.

The em­ploy­ers, how­ever, aren’t con­cerned. For Mr. Cheng, the trade­off to 996 hours is a sub­stan­tial salary: His work­ers can earn $60,000 a year, with the ex­pec­ta­tion that they will put in the hours re­quired.

“Money is still the top is­sue most peo­ple care about. So I see it as some­thing rea­son­able,” he said.

Mr. Zhuge, mean­while, con­tin­ues to toil at his own 996 job, with no im­me­di­ate prospect of re­lief.

“I feel that our boss is not nor­mal, like he feels as if he will lose a lot of money if he lets us go home be­fore 9 p.m. So we have to work over­time.”

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