CAN YOU BAN "996"?

China’s top court says 996 overtime culture is illegal

Catching a break.
Catching a break.
Image: Reuters
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Chinese tech companies’ excessive work hours were once seen as the secret to their success, endorsed by moguls like Alibaba founder Jack Ma. Now, the country’s authorities are sending corporations a firm warning to stop this practice.

China’s top court, the Supreme People’s Court, and the country’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, jointly issued a memo yesterday (Aug. 26) that included 10 court decisions on labor disputes about overtime work and corresponding compensation. In one case, the court said a delivery worker, who was required to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, a schedule known widely in China as “996,” was fired after declining to work such long hours. The court ruled that the company in question should compensate the worker 8,000 yuan ($1,233) for illegally terminating its contract with them, and said the 996 work schedule “has seriously violated the maximum overtime work hours regulated by Chinese law, and hence should be seen as invalid.”

China’s labor law stipulates that normal work time should not exceed eight hours a day. If employers can reach an agreement with workers, employees can work a maximum of three additional hours in a single day, while total overtime work should not exceed 36 hours a month. But in the tech sector, where the 996 schedule is rampant, many workers have worked far longer hours, and dissatisfaction with the practice is intensifying.

In one case, an employee at Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo collapsed to death after she worked till midnight, which drew public condemnation of tech companies’ grueling work hours. Some tech workers have also set up a project on GitHub to expose companies that are exploiting the 996 practice.

In another case cited in the memo, the court zeroed in on an unnamed tech company. It said that despite the company pressuring the worker to sign a contract in which the employee volunteered to “work hard” and thus give up their overtime work compensation, the firm owes the worker overtime pay under labor law. “There’s nothing wrong in pursuing hard work, but that shouldn’t become a shield for companies to avoid their legal responsibilities,” read the memo.

“Although there are positive signs this year, when some internet companies announced that they canceled the ‘big week/small week’ practice, many of them still haven’t gone back to a standardized state…the top court and labor ministry’s joint memo has taught a lesson to companies that still have 996 arrangement,” read an opinion piece today from state-owned media the Beijing Youth Daily.

Chinese tech giants including TikTok owner ByteDance have in recent months been walking back their grueling work hours, including the big week/small week policy that requires workers to alternate five-day work weeks and six-day workweeks.

Commentators on China’s social media platform Weibo have questioned whether the court’s announcement would lead to significant change. “Although now it’s emphasized that 996 is illegal, but what could we ordinary workers do? Can we really sue the employer at the risk of never being able to find a job in the same industry again?’ wrote a user.