The clash of big tech business moguls and the labor they rely on
Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba and Richard Liu, the founder of JD.com, China’s largest online retailers, paint a picture of brotherhood surrounding long hours, hard work, and sacrifice in ascending the ladder to success in the Chinese tech economy.
The tech workers subjected to these hours, however, have found a new sense of community in their fight against the abusive workaholic culture to which they have been subjected. The new labor movement is fighting against the so called “996” work regimen that gets its name from employees who are expected to work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
While the evidence is anecdotal, as someone with numerous friends working in China in Tech and finance industries, I can attest that these are the hours they are expected to work. My friends, like the 996 activists, complain of the strain it puts on their relationships and their physical and mental health.
Li Shun, a former employee of Baidu told the New York Times of the strenuous work culture and what is changing the push saying, “Ten years ago, people rarely complained about 996. This industry was booming once, but it’s more of a normal industry now. There are no more giant financial returns. Expecting people to work a 996 schedule on their own like before isn’t realistic.”
Independent labor movements are uncommon in China. Independent labor unions are banned, and although protests or demonstrations aren’t especially rare in China, they do come with significant risk if they can be perceived as even remotely political. Lu Yuyu documented 70,000 outbreaks of unrest that were not political in nature in china in three years before he was arrested under charges of “picking quarrels and causing trouble”. Given little support from the government and the obvious opposition of the private employer it isn’t surprising that labor movements are especially risky.
However, this hasn’t stopped the anti-996 campaigners from voicing their unrest. They have set up two areas on Github, 996.icu (“intensive care unit”) and the 955.wlb (“work life balance”) that list the worst offenders for abusing employees and the companies with the most relaxed working hours respectively.
These websites are careful to say that they are not a political movement, but the Chinese government doesn’t usually sit ideally by without censoring such online discontents. Ironically, their partnership in censoring material posted on China’s most popular websites including Alibaba, Qihoo 360, Weibo, and Tencent are websites run by the protesters themselves.
Because of their familiarity with Government censorship, these discussion boards which make up the backbone of the labor movement, are hosted on Github, a Microsoft software development platform. China cannot force Microsoft to pull down the website without significant push back and political damage to the Chinese Communist Party and Microsoft. Employees at Microsoft are currently petitioning the company not to self-censor the sites. Github is also heavily encrypted making it harder for the Chinese state to censor selectively.
Blocking Github entirely would cripple China’s numerous technology startups and even hamper the operations of established technology firms. China blocked Github once in 2013, but after significant backlash from programmers and developers that rely on the service access was quickly restored.
The anti-996 movement was sparked because of the weakening position of the Chinese tech industry. In an article, Fortune magazine siting the Chinese Academy of science and technology, says “funding from venture capitalists and private equity firms dropped 87% in the first quarter over the same period last year.” In response to this precipitous drop, tech firms are moving to lay off workers. “Ride hailing giant Didi Chuxing reportedly is mulling a 15% cut in employee numbers while Tencent, the company behind China’s ubiquitous messaging service WeChat, is targeting a 10% reduction of management staff. This month reports claimed JD.com will lay off 8% of its staff, approximately 12,000 workers.”
At this point, it is hard to say whether the labor movement will be able to defend their jobs and/or recapture some semblance of a work-life balance. However, there is some proof that the movement is being heard. The People’s Daily, which is largely seen as a government influenced news source, ran a story in English seemingly sympathetic to the movement. Jian Ying, a leading expert in China’s Labor Law is quoted as saying:
“When resorting to the legal system for protection, there is a price to pay: time, money and the risk of losing your job. And as a result they took to cyberspace.” — Jian Ying, professor at China University of Labor Relations
As always, I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Please let me know what you think about this story and the tech industry in China more broadly. Thanks for taking the time to read, and I appreciate your feedback.