What Businesses in China Should Know About the Ban on ‘996’, Companies’ Overbearing Overtime Policy

China’s overtime policy, dubbed “996”, was officially ruled illegal in August 2021 by Chinese authorities. China’s top court has ruled that the controversial overtime work policy is illegal, taking aim at the excessive working hours commonly practised at Chinese tech companies. The ban was met with cheers and overwhelming positivity by Chinese netizens, having witnessed the effects of how gruelling 996 can actually be through the tech company workers lamenting their 996 experiences online.

What is 996 culture?

Famously coined by Jack Ma in April 2016, the 996 culture is China’s version of the American’s hustle culture, where one is expected to work from 9 am to 9 pm for 6 days a week. Jack Ma went on to say that workers should consider the 996 schedule “a huge blessing” as he believes that to achieve success one must always pay extra effort and time. Tech companies in China have used the 996 working culture for a while now and have attributed the long working hours to its success, with employees having to adapt to the culture in order to keep up with the companies’ rapid development and growth to obtain KPIs.

However, “996” was officially ruled illegal in August last year by Chinese authorities. China’s top court has ruled that the controversial overtime work policy is illegal, taking aim at the excessive working hours commonly practised at Chinese tech companies. The ban was met with cheers and overwhelming positivity by Chinese netizens, having witnessed the effects of how gruelling 996 can actually be through the tech company workers lamenting their 996 experiences online.

The ban may come as a surprise as the 996 working hours had been in effect for a while now. So if 996 had been a long-standing culture, why did it only get banned now? What are the potential effects of the 996 ban for the younger generation?

Let’s take a look and find out.

Why would China ban 996 now?

The 996 schedule was first introduced in 2010, when the China economy grew tremendously, shaping the digital economy that has since surpassed the West. So if 996 has been around for so long, why did the Chinese government decide to ban it now? The ban came after a series of events happened that shook the young Chinese workforce, such as the 996.ICU project, netizens’ opposition, and the rise of the lying flat movement.

1. The 996.ICU project

Screenshot of the 996 GitHub project webpage
Screenshot of the 996 GitHub project webpage. © Source

Truth be told, the 996 working hours has always been deeply embroiled in controversy. But in March 2019, a couple of Chinese programmers working in tech companies started a project on GitHub called, “996.ICU”, an abbreviation of the phrase, “996 Working, ICU Waiting.” The project was made in protest of the arduous working schedule. A list of labour laws are on the site and people were welcome to anonymously upload evidence of their brutal working hours and to gripe about their work. There is also a blacklist of companies on the platform that have utilised 996 on their employees.

chinese citizens on chinese social media  talking about 996
Netizens’ reactions to the 996.ICU GitHub project were mostly in support. © Source

The project was met with immense support from Chinese netizens, even amassing more than 200,000 clicks. This virtual protest did not fly under the China government’s radar as certain browsers have blocked the site altogether.

2. Netizens’ opposition

Other incidents that might have caused the government to officially ban 996 were the Chinese netizens’ cry out of outrage for the deaths of several people that were employed under the companies that adopted the 996 schedule. While it’s unclear whether or not these cases were directly linked to 996, these incidents incited outrage from netizens, sparking debate on the high pressure and overworked culture of China and the ‘dark side’ to working in some of the country’s largest firms.

3. The rise of the ‘lying flat’ movement

Because of the highly competitive job market and the demanding working conditions, a lot of youth in China have decided to partake in the “Tang Ping” (躺平) movement where people are encouraged to drop out of the ‘rat race’ and to live simply with not many desires in life. This movement has become so popular that Chinese officials have begun to see it as a hazard, as the ‘lying flat’ lifestyle can affect Chinese consumption and growth in the long run and is threatening to lower the already shrinking labour force in China.

How the 996 ban was introduced

With so much backlash against the 996 schedule, many agree that this was not a sustainable solution. In August of this year, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security released a memo of 10 court decisions related to workplace overtime disputes and said that the 996 work schedule represents a serious violation of the law pertaining to maximum work hours. According to China’s labour laws, a standard workday is usually 8 hours long, with a maximum of 44 hours a week. Any work beyond that requires extra pay for overtime, as per the People’s Republic of China Labor Law.

China needs its young workers healthy and fit to keep the economy going in the decades to come, especially with the shrinking population. This factor is another reason why regulators are attempting to create an employment system that is more balanced for young workers, hoping to make work appealing to the youth. This attempt is very likely to succeed as regulators, tech companies, and employees have taken massive strides to accomplish this.

Did Chinese people like working 996 hours?

Working at big tech companies has always been a goal for many in China, as it comes with the obvious brag value and higher pay. In fact, a fresh graduate is able to obtain an annual salary of 150,000 RMB (23,534.64 USD) working at Pinduoduo, easily reaching an annual salary of 500,000 RMB (78448.80 USD) within 3 to 5 years of working there.

This is a substantial amount as the national average salary in China reached about 97,400 RMB (15281.54 USD) in 2020 and the average salary for professionals working in the tech industry in the U.S. during the same year was 97,859 USD. Chinese employees comply with the 996 work culture to keep up with the pace of the job and achieve the stable income that comes with working overtime. And since their surroundings are filled with people who are working the same hours, the 996 schedule is then rationalised.

In fact, based on data from 2017, the average time for leisure that Chinese people can enjoy daily was 2.27 hours. With this data, we can assume that the amount of time for leisure has stayed relatively the same in the current period of time. Because of this data, many people in China feel as if they have to choose between getting a paycheck or getting to enjoy their leisure time.

But as mentioned previously, there was a whole project dedicated to the protest of the 996 culture that was met with mostly positive reactions from the Chinese people; so it is safe to say that a lot of the people working these hours did not necessarily like their working conditions, but were doing so in order to survive.

What are the government’s aims with the ban on overtime working culture?

1. Curb powerful tech giants’ monopolies

The last few months were where the Chinese government released new regulations in order to regulate the tech giants in China. With the ban of 996, this is seen as a huge blow to tech giants’ profitability and growth. So if these tech companies were to go against this ban, it is highly likely for the regulators to enforce punishments on them.

2. Increase the work ethic of youth

As mentioned, one of the impacts of 996 was the ‘lying flat’ movement that arose in protest of the inhumane working conditions that 996 presented. With the ban of 996, one of the big reasons as to why the youth has opted to live a ‘lying flat’ lifestyle would be removed, giving young people more reasons to come back to the Chinese workforce and hopefully help to make China’s labour force more steady.

In conclusion

The 996 ban has brought about hope and joy to Chinese tech company workers, implementing much more humane working conditions where employees aren’t forced to work overtime. There is hope that this ban will be able to curb the shrinking labour force and improve productivity in China while hampering outrage from concerned citizens.

With the changing labour laws enforced, the action of tech companies and participation from employees will surely make China’s 996 schedule slowly transition to a 995 schedule instead. But how soon that will happen remains to be seen, as change does not happen in a day; especially since the 996 working culture had been instilled in both employees and employers for years and years.

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