Thousands of workers in some of China’s major tech companies responded enthusiastically to an online campaign that questions the culture of overtime, which has become a norm in the country.

According to Reuters, the now-viral campaign called “Worker Lives Matter” was created for tech workers to post details, such as the name of their company, their position and working hours, on a spreadsheet on the open-source platform GitHub.

The report says that four anonymous graduates are behind the campaign.

As per Reuters, the data shared by over 4,000 employees of companies, including Baidu, Tencent Holdings and Alibaba Group, reveals that many of them work around 12 hours a day even though a workweek comprises five days.

The 996 culture

China workers
Image: Courtesy of LYCS Architecture/@lycs/Unsplash

Employees of major companies are protesting what is infamous as “996”. It derives its name from the practice of working from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week.

Several employees are demanding the “955” culture, which is working from 9 am to 5 pm five days a week.

“We hope to make a contribution to the boycott of ‘996’ and the popularisation of ‘955’,” Reuters quoted one of the creators of the campaign as saying on Zhihu, a Chinese social media site.

Is this a first-time protest?

Many in China have been voicing their opposition to “996” culture for a long time. In 2019, an online campaign was launched to raise awareness about the issue and attempt to reduce the pressure on employees.

China’s apex court called “996” illegal in a landmark ruling in August this year. The court observed that “adhering to the national working hour system is the legal obligation of employers” and said that workers deserve “rest and vacation”.

Protests have intensified after the government’s crackdown on tech companies such as Alibaba, which exposed the grinding work culture that employees are subjected to.

996 culture
Image: Courtesy of Greg Baker/AFP

Interestingly, Alibaba CEO Jack Ma had in April 2019 defended the culture of overwork, calling it a “blessing”. At the time, he wrote that China’s economy was “very likely to lose vitality and impetus” if the system wasn’t there.

His view was backed by Richard Liu, the chief of Chinese e-commerce company, who had called those opposing “996” “slackers” in April.

Though some companies — including ByteDance, owner of the video-sharing platform TikTok — have cut compulsory weekend overtime, the issue remains a major one for most of China’s tech employees.

At the same time, employees of other industries, such as real estate and finance have also joined the calls for a change in the “996” culture.

What about other countries?

Some developed economies around the world are experimenting with the four-day work culture. The prominent ones among them are New Zealand and Japan.

In May 2020, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had suggested that employers should consider a four-day workweek besides other flexible options for better work-life balance for employees.

Japan, which is infamous for having one of the world’s toughest working systems, too, appears to be more accepting of a four-day week system.

In June 2021, the government’s annual economic policy guidelines recommended that employers should give employees the option to work four days a week.

Spain and Iceland also tested the four-day system earlier this year.

Her0 and Featured images: LYCS Architecture/@lycs/Unsplash

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