Chinese tech mogul Jack Ma famously remarked that being a member of the so-called “996 work culture,” in which individuals work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, was a “gift.”
China’s regulators have now issued a firm warning to businesses that such harsh work patterns are unlawful.
Last Thursday, China’s top court and labor ministry released a joint statement detailing ten court rulings relating to labor issues, several of which included workers being compelled to work overtime.
“Workers are entitled to commensurate compensation and rest periods or holidays under the law. However, employers are responsible for adhering to national working hours.” This joint effort issued a warning. To handle future labor disputes, they will give further rules.
However, will China’s most forceful warning pave the path for genuine reform for some of its overworked citizens?
What changed the momentum for employees?
According to Chinese labor laws, the average working day is eight hours, with 44 hours per week. Any extra work requires extra overtime pay. But this was not adequately enforced.
Employees have complained about their malicious schedules over the years, and some have even tried to combat this. However, the sad tradition of 996 has continued, with the government taking action.
After all, this same behavior has also been called the driver of success in these firms, some already incredibly popular at the international level. Like Mr. Ma, who founded the extensive online marketing company Alibaba, JD.com chief e-commerce manager Richard Liu once defended the tradition.
But public outrage means the authorities are no longer able to turn a blind eye. Earlier this year, two employees of the e-commerce platform Pinduoduo died – a young worker died when returning home after working long hours, and another died by suicide.
In January, a food truck driver set himself on fire after allegedly being denied $ 770 (£ 559) in unpaid salaries, just one month after a worker died while delivering food on the online platform Ele. me.
It’s unclear whether these cases were directly linked to overwork. But employees oppose 996 customs and the “bad side” of working for some of the country’s most respected firms.
Many threads have spread on social media as some employees come forward claiming to be working more than 300 hours a month – far beyond legal limits. And for more workers who work longer hours than ever before during the epidemic, enough is enough.
Why China needs its competitive workforce?
As there are growing grievances among employees, some are embracing participatory approaches. According to Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin, there were 131 cases of food service protests between 2016 and 2021.
“The government cannot remain silent and allow this explosion. They want peace,” said Dr. Chan.
Experts say that progress in protecting workers better also comes as the attitudes of many young Chinese have changed. Unlike their parents, who believe that hard work pays off, there is a growing sense of dissatisfaction among teens who see little or no pay.
“Young people have seen other opportunities and have chosen to change their lifestyle,” explains Dr. Song.
But this is an idea that worries the authorities as the country faces declining staff in the coming years. In May, China’s one-tenth census revealed a slow population growth over decades. “This greatly concerns the government because it needs these workers to keep the economy afloat,” said Dr. Chan.
“That’s why it’s now trying to create a recruiting system that seems more humane to young workers – to make the job more marketable. China needs to keep it competitive.”
In the future
On social media, general reactions to last week’s state notice were cautious. However, many people are hopeful that this will truly improve their working lives.
As China continues to fight some of its largest firms to curb its influence, companies will not attempt to cross the line, they said. “
And it seems to be starting to work. Last Saturday, smartphone maker Vivo said it would scrap its “big/small” process, in which employees would switch to five weeks and six working days.
Employees can now feel confident to take their bosses to court. “I expect more workers to exercise their rights under labor laws if they feel they are mistreated,” said Angela Zhang, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
“Following the direction of the Supreme Court, the lower courts in China will also be able to support the status of workers in similar labor disputes.”
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