Internet & Tech

Coded warning

Tech tycoons under fire for trumpeting a ‘996’ work culture for their staff

Jack-Ma-w

He didn’t get where he is today by working 9 to 5

After a lengthy wait Japan has introduced new laws to tackle one of the most notorious aspects of the country’s work culture: punitively long hours. Starting from April 1 overtime permitted has been capped at 45 hours a month and 360 hours a year.

The government’s move is linked to the backlash against karoshi, an extreme form of job burnout that was brought to prominence by the suicide of Matsuri Takahashi in 2015.

Having logged as many as 105 extra hours of work in a single month, the 24 year-old employee at ad agency Dentsu jumped to her death from a company dormitory.

The reform is meant to bring economic benefits as well as social ones. After all, long working hours are often blamed for Japan’s low birth rates (and declining population) and lower female participation in the workforce. They may even stifle the drive to innovate.

Japanese leader Abe Shinzo sees the new law as part of a broader strategy to reflate the domestic economy. But coincidentally, just as Japan enshrines legislation designed to deliver a better work-life balance, there’s a heated debate in China about the gruelling work schedules in the country’s internet sector.

Software engineers have been complaining about a tech company culture dubbed “996” i.e. working from 9am to 9pm six days a week. Of course, 996 is nothing new in China. It first gained attention in 2016 when online classifieds platform 58.com made it an official rule during peak seasons. Early this year e-commerce service provider Youzan also announced its implementation, resulting in over 30 complaints filed to a regional labour supervision group in Hangzhou, where the company is based. It is estimated that at least 40 tech firms in China tacitly adopt such work schedules, according to Beijing Youth Daily. Those include Bytedance, DJI, Huawei, Pinduoduo, Suning and Tujia.

This unofficial arrangement has come to be loathed by employees, but taken for granted by many tech patriarchs, including Alibaba’s Jack Ma. “I personally think that being able to work 996 is a huge blessing. Many companies, many people don’t have the opportunity to work 996, even if they wish to,” he wrote in a long internal memo to staff. “Think about people who don’t have a job, think about companies that might have to fold the following day, think about those struggling to book revenue the next quarter…”

“We have a huge mission, that is, to make doing business easy for everyone. Can you not put in effort [and expect to achieve such a goal]? No. That’s why we say, if you join Alibaba, then be prepared to work 12 hours a day,” he added. “The work that we do in those extra hours is about learning and self-improvement, not drudgery.”

Ma’s remarks created a stir across the country, including likeminded responses from some of his peers. “For four years, I didn’t sleep for more than two hours in a row,” argued JD.com’s Liu Qiangdong on his early days starting his company. “These days, there are fewer hard workers and more lazy people… Those lazy people are not my brothers. My brothers are the ones who fight together, the ones who take responsibility and pressure together, the ones who share our success together.”

(JD staff clock out on average at 11.16pm, according to a recent report in The Economist.)

For a lot of mere mortals the conversation was a jarring one. “Capitalists have helpers to cook for them, drivers to transport them, and full-time moms to look after their kids […] But what does 996 mean for ordinary folks? [It means] their kids have no fathers, their wives have no husbands, and their parents have deceased children,” fumed one weibo user.“996 compromises one’s body and costs one’s lifestyle. But your company won’t recompense for your frail body and loneliness when you reach old age,” argued another netizen. “Most bosses just want their staff to work 996, and yet are unwilling to offer rewards accordingly.”

The debate was sparked by a campaign on GitHub, a Microsoft-owned code sharing platform and social network for programmers. It started with a chatroom tagged “996.icu”, referencing the intensive care units at hospitals. The post also detailed how 996 culture contravenes the country’s labour laws, which mandate a work week of 44 hours, with overtime capped at 36 hours a month. “Developers’ lives matter”, the post concludes.

As part of the campaign the same irked developers have tried to restrict usage of their code by companies that encourage 996 labour practices. “We are hoping to protest in a moderate manner, and create a lasting, silent deterrent to companies that impose 996,” said Suji Yan, who led the initiative with his wife Katt Gu, to The Economic Observer.

Yan is himself a tech entrepreneur but says his activism was motivated by the difficulty that a lot of tech employees have encountered when trying to exercise their stock options – financial rewards promised to staff in exchange for long periods of hard work at the office.

On-demand service platform Meituan Dianping, for instance, has been sued by a former employee who says that the company had reduced his options entitlement without due notification. “Some staff who had left the company were not informed of the arrangement. And those hoping to exercise their rights did not have their applications processed until at one point they were told that their options had expired,” Liu Jihan, the plaintiff, has alleged.

Complicating the 996 controversy is sweeping retrenchment across the tech sector. Ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing announced a plan in February to slash 15% of its workforce, for instance, and JD.com is also talking about eliminating 10% of its senior staff roles (see page 9). Employee commitment to the 996 culture seems to have become a yardstick for who stays and who goes in some of these culls. According to a widely circulated exposé by Sogou staff, the search engine had also suggested that people not putting in 996 hours would be first to be cut (Sogou’s CEO Wang Xiaochuan later denied this was official policy).

What started in China then went global. On April 22 about a hundred software engineers with companies including Microsoft, Facebook and Google published a letter of support for the Chinese workers on GitHub. There was more solidarity from an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “The Richest Man in China is Wrong. 12-Hour Days Are No ‘Blessing’.”

“Go-getting is not synonymous with compulsory overtime work… The imposition of 996 overtime culture not only reflects the hubris of business managers, it itself is impractical and unfair,” argued the People’s Daily in an unusual instance where it concurred with the New York Times.

In the meantime, browsers operated by tech firms like Alibaba, Tencent and Qihoo 360 have censored ‘996.icu’ search results in a bid to shut down the debate. The Economist pointed out the irony has not been lost on netizens. “So 996 developers at 996 companies had to work 996 to block a website about 996,” one quipped.


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