How China is Tackling 996 Toxic Tech Work Culture

In an effort to address the growing backlash against poor working conditions in the private sector, China has issued its most comprehensive warning yet against the “996” work culture, citing actual court cases.

On August 28, the Supreme People’s Court of China and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security issued a joint statement regarding labor violations and irrationality—working six days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It ruled that this was an illegal practice. “Legally, workers have the right to corresponding compensation and rest periods or holidays,” according to the statement. 

996 Work Culture

“Employers must follow the national working-hours regime,” it added. Overtime is a common cause of labor disputes, which harms both the worker-employer relationship and social stability.” Although Chinese labor law allows for three hours of overtime per day.

The statement examines ten court cases in which labor laws were violated. In one case, a technology firm required employees to sign agreements foregoing overtime pay, which the court ruled was unlawful. In another case, an employee of a media company died at work after being forced to work long hours. The victim’s death was determined to be work-related by the court, and the company was ordered to pay the victim’s family 400,000 yuan ($61,710). 

The statement also mentioned a precedent that makes it the employer’s burden of proof to deny overtime pay if the employee provides proof of working overtime. In all of the cases, including those involving the technology industry, plaintiffs were compensated. This will encourage an increasing number of people to use the legal system to seek just compensation from tech companies.

The 996 work culture is extremely popular among China’s tech startups and companies. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group and a tech tycoon, is a staunch supporter of the strenuous work schedule. He attributed some of the success of tech companies in 2019 to it, calling it a “huge blessing that many companies and employees do not have the opportunity that we do.” According to JD.com founder Richard Liu, people who waste their time “are not my brothers.” Zhou Hongyi, CEO of cybersecurity behemoth Qihoo360, defended the punishing work schedule as well, claiming that work-life balance is impossible to achieve.

In 2019, an activist group launched the Github project “996.ICU”—a reference to the location where such hours take engineers: the intensive care unit—where critics listed examples of unreasonable overtime work and blacklisted companies accused of engaging in the practice. Tencent’s QQ Browser and WeChat, Alibaba’s UC Browser, Qihoo 360’s 360 Browser, and a slew of other Chromium-based Chinese browsers were said to have blocked the 996.ICU repository on GitHub, describing it as “an illegal and fraudulent site.”


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