“996” Ruled Illegal Yet Labor Researchers, Activists Still Arrested

The Supreme People’s Court has ruled the much-reviled “996” 72-hour work week illegal. The January death of a 22-year-old Pinduoduo employee after working a late shift focused public anger on 996 overtime culture, which plagues both white- and blue-collar employees of China’s tech giants. While the ruling is likely welcome news to overworked employees across China, it merely upheld rules already on the books, and came amidst the ongoing repression of China’s independent labor movement. At NPR, Bill Chappell covered the court’s ruling:

Under Chinese law, monthly overtime totals are essentially limited to 36 hours. Zhang refused to work illegal amounts of overtime — as dictated by his schedule — and was fired. The courier company said Zhang failed to fulfill the requirements of his probation period. But he disagreed, and an arbitration panel ordered his former employer to pay him a month’s salary of 8,000 yuan (about $1,237).

[…] The high court’s decision is based on at least 10 cases in which workers said they were being unfairly denied overtime pay and related compensation, including payment for injuries incurred while working overtime. Some of the cases also centered on disputes that erupted after employers sought to use special agreements with their employees to circumvent labor laws.

[…] Li fainted in a bathroom at work and died of a heart attack on Dec. 1 as he neared the end of a 12-hour overnight shift. His relatives sought compensation for his death as well as funeral expenses. In its ruling, the court affirmed that both the media company and the service company that directly hired Li bear joint responsibility for compensating the man’s family. [Source]

Alibaba founder Jack Ma was a prominent proponent of 996, calling it a “huge blessing” in 2019. Ma so enjoyed the term that he riffed on it while giving sex advice to his employees: “We want 669 in life. What is 669? Six times in six days; the emphasis is on nine.” That same year, tech employees disgusted by executives’ romanticization of overwork launched the 996.ICU GitHub campaign to protest and document abuse in the industry. Suji Yan, one of the initiators of the GitHub protest, gave his opinion on the court’s latest ruling to Bloomberg: “It’s a good sign that the supreme court is finally paying attention. This is about politics as much as it’s about rule of law given the recent crackdowns on companies like Alibaba and Meituan.” Both companies are now facing intense regulatory scrutiny.

The ruling against 996 aligns with Xi Jinping’s new push for “common prosperity,” a phrase employed by both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, but in profoundly different ways. What Xi means by it remains unclear, although a top official recently felt compelled to assert that it does not mean “killing the rich to help the poor.” The State Council’s latest five-year employment plan, published last Friday, emphasizes the need to increase employee wages and monitor excessive working hours. Caixin documented a raft of new guidelines from a number of government ministries: among the proposed protections is a recommendation that food delivery companies be more transparent about driver pay. Former Finance Minister Lou Jiwei said, “If there is no proper regulation, everyone will adopt 996, which will reduce jobs and be harmful to society.” 

Yet there is widespread skepticism about the sincerity of the government’s push for labor rights. One popular comment on Weibo captured the skepticism prevalent among the broader public: “Get back to me when you can enforce [the law].” At Fortune, Grady McGregor solicited opinion on the ruling from a number of experts, many of whom noted that workers remain in a precarious position:

The court did not restrict its judgment to the tech sector, but China’s tech giants are likely to be on high alert after years of popularizing 996 working habits. “Today’s court-issued essay will likely be taken to heart by the entire tech industry,” says Brock Silvers, chief investment officer of Kaiyuan Capital in Hong Kong.

[…] Dev Lewis, program lead at Digital Asia Hub, says it’s just as likely that firms will find new ways to keep their employees working long hours. “A ruling alone will not change a culture, especially one that is entrenched for several decades,” says Lewis. “The economic incentives remain the same, and companies tend to find creative loopholes.”

[…] Zhuang [Bo Zhuang, a China economist at Loomis Sayles] says that the 996 court statement and other populist measures may, in part, be aimed at helping President Xi cement his power for a third term in the lead-up to next year’s National Party Congress. “China is rolling out populist policies, including tech crackdowns, including common prosperity…and labor protection is part of those measures […] President Xi wants to be more secure and therefore more popular.” [Source]

The recent detentions of labor rights activists and researchers underscore the dichotomy in the Chinese state’s policy: it is intent on fostering better labor conditions, yet totally intolerant of outside participation in the process. In July, three members of a nonprofit Changsha labor advocacy group were handed prison sentences of two, three and five years, after being held in detention for over 700 days. On August 26, Fang Ran, a 26-year-old University of Hong Kong PhD candidate who researches labor movements, was detained by police in his hometown of Nanning, Guangxi Province. The South China Morning Post’s Mimi Lau reported on the reaction to his detention:

“I’m very shocked because Fang Ran is not a criminal who is capable of causing damage to the party. But rather, a young man born with a purpose,” the message [written by Fang’s father] said, adding that the student has been a Communist Party member since 2013.

[…] In February he [Fang Ran] hosted an online book club discussing a book about South Korean labour activism by Professor Hagen Koo. Koo’s work remains influential among mainland students who see parallels between the situation in China today and 1980s South Korea, where grass-roots activists were targeted by the authorities.

[…] “In the eyes of a state that refuses to acknowledge the existence of labour problems within its jurisdiction, studying such problems is itself a challenge to the authority of the state, an act of defamation and subversion,” [political scientist Lin Yao] said. [Source]


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