And Finally

Chained to their desks

Controversy over a cushion that tracks the work rate of office staff


Are workers being unfairly squeezed to become more productive?

When a Hangzhou-based tech company distributed ‘smart-cushions’ to its employees last year, they were introduced as health aids – gadgets that monitor heart rates, seating positions and fatigue levels.

If a person had been sitting at their desk too long, the company said, the cushion would prompt the employee to stand up and walk around, courtesy of an alert on their mobile phone.

But a few weeks into the deployment of the new devices, an employee was approached by the human resources team and challenged on why she was stepping away from her desk for half an hour every morning – information they had gleaned from her smart cushion.

The staff member was so incensed that she took to social media to complain, saying that workers had never been informed that they would be monitored in this way.

Furthermore, the HR department had warned that if the cushions detected employees taking long, unauthorised breaks, their bonuses could be affected.

“I was naive to think that only the employees would be seeing their data,” the staff member wrote. “Now I feel as if I have been stripped naked. Going to work is like going to jail. Human relations are difficult at the best of times but this removes all trust.”

As the Chinese Communist Party heads for a celebration of 100 years since its founding this summer, many employees are asking how it is that a culture of overwork and exploitation has been allowed to prevail in a governing system that was created with commitments to improving the lot of the working masses.

In recent weeks two of China’s most prominent internet brands – Pinduoduo and ­– have been damaged by the deaths of employees – two collapsed after working long, stressful shifts and another committed suicide (see page 10).

Other examples of employers extracting the maximum effort from their workers saw an electrical goods manufacturer in Dongguan introduce on-the-spot fines of Rmb20 ($3) for anyone using the toilet more than twice a day.

Other companies already block internet connectivity in their toilets to stop employees from spending any longer than they need to in the loo cubicles.

STO Express, one of China’s top courier companies, also came in for criticism this month when it fired a graduate who refused to comply with the company’s ‘996’ office culture – a regime popular with internet firms that mandate 9am to 9pm shifts, six days a week (see WiC449).

This week state news agency Xinhua warned companies against promoting the ‘996’ culture, saying it was infringing workers legitimate rights for cut-throat, commercial reasons.

It also warned that companies should stop framing the overworking of staff as some kind of “struggle” – a description used historically by Communist Party seniors for mobilising the masses and preparing them for policy goals or periods of hardship.

“Rationalising overtime under the guise of ‘struggle’ is a misunderstanding of the original meaning and an infringement on the legitimate rights and interests of employees. It is also a guise for some companies to reduce the cost of employment for pursuing profit,” Xinhua angrily chided.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.