Oriental Review
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Oriental Review

Ending the Alternate Saturday Workweek Caused Pay Cuts and Dissatisfaction

After ByteDance terminated its “big/small week” work schedule, employees’ salaries were reduced by 17% — leading to many complaints and resignations.

On 31 August, the first payday after ByteDance announced the cancellation of the alternate Saturday workweek system, many employees took a pay cut of 15%-20%. Discussions about the work schedule changes began to ferment in ByteDance’s intranet. It then spread to social platforms such as Maimai, Moments, Douban, and Zhihu before appearing on the hot search on Weibo the next day. The “overtime culture” of the Internet industry has once again become a point of discussion for the netizens.

Source: Weibo

Changing the “overtime culture” in China’s Internet industry

The internet industry’s rapid development has led to different types of overtime work schedules as standard practice.

This includes the “996” work culture, which means to work from nine in the morning until nine in the evening for six days a week. Another form of overtime would be “007”, which means to start work at midnight 12 am until 7 am, for seven days a week. Lastly, there are alternate Saturday work weeks (big/small week), which means alternating 5 and 6 days workweeks. These cultures have been supporting the high-speed operation of Internet companies, inspiring other companies to follow suit. As a result, over time (measured by work hours) has become the performance appraisal standard for many companies.

Source: 2020 Workplace Overtime Research Report

However, the overtime culture poses great harm to employees’ physical and mental health due to a lack of sufficient rest time, evidenced by the numerous examples seen in the past. The sudden death of a 23-year-old Pinduoduo employee after working long hours past midnight, the unfortunate death of an employee of Shanghai Shangtang Technology at work, and the death of an outsourced employee working overtime under Sanqi Mutual Entertainment caused waves of shock on the Internet.

On 25 August, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Supreme People’s Court jointly issued ten typical cases of overtime work, announcing that the 996/007 work system is illegal.

Since June, the Lightspeed & Quantum Studio under Tencent Interactive Entertainment (IEG) has piloted a mandatory 6 pm end-of-work schedule. According to the company’s “Happy Work and Healthy Life” overtime management mechanism paper, Lightspeed & Quantum Studio employees will leave the workplace at 6 pm on Wednesdays and before 9 pm on other working days starting 14 June. Weekend overtime must be declared and authorized ahead of time. On weekends, working extra for two days in a row is severely prohibited. Shortly after, Internet businesses like Kuaishou, ByteDance, Meituan Optimum, BOSS Direct, VIVO, Xiaopeng, and many other companies released statements announcing the discontinuation of alternate Saturday work weeks.

Why do Internet companies no longer advocate for overtime?

1) From a national perspective

Excessive overtime has been linked to a growing number of societal problems, with instances involving overtime repeatedly capturing public attention. In 2019, Jack Ma claimed that “996 is a blessing” in Alibaba’s internal exchange activities, while Liu Qiangdong contended that the “8116+8” work schedule is the pillar supporting the Jingdong brothers. “8116+8” refers to working from Monday to Saturday, from 8 am to 11 pm, and 8 am to 8 pm on Sundays, with two days off each month and one long vacation in a year. However, most netizens expressed disapproval towards the views of these employers, arguing that overtime would only lead to a less productive and unhappy working environment.

Source: Sohu

Sustainable development is now the national emphasis. With the ageing population becoming more and more prevalent, the labour advantage will become increasingly marginal in the future. In response to the crisis, China has implemented several initiatives to boost fertility rates, such as allowing three children, condemning the culture of overtime labour, reforming the education industry, and lowering housing costs.

2) From a corporate perspective

Apart from the public backlash, efficiency is the key reason why companies stopped the alternate Saturday workweek schedule. According to the “47th Statistical Report on Internet Development in China”, the total number of Internet users in China is 989 million as of December 2020. Based on the internet sub-categories, the number of users for online video streaming has reached 927 million, online shopping is at 782 million, and online payment is at 854 million. The number of users in various Internet segments is becoming saturated while the growth rate gradually decreases. Among them, online games have even seen a decline in the number of users. The business growth of Internet companies is foreseeably slowing down, and the “exchange of working hours for company growth” model is no longer effective.

Source: 2020.3–2020.12 User Scale and Utilization Ratio of Various Internet Applications by Netizens

Why did the termination of alternate Saturday work weeks cause upset?

As early as 17 June, before ceasing the alternate Saturday working schedule, ByteDance CEO Liang Rubo announced the results of an internal survey: support, neutrality and opposition for the termination of big/small week work schedule each accounted for one-third. The main concern for those who do not support the termination is the worry that salaries may shrink significantly. Indeed, their fears became a reality on the payday on 31 August.

Source: Weibo

Based on industry average, if you work overtime from Monday to Friday, the overtime pay is 1.5 times the usual salary, 2 times the normal pay on weekends, and 3 times the normal pay on statutory holidays. In addition, many companies provide various additional benefits, such as dinner subsidies and taxi reimbursements to encourage overtime. The heated discussion of the ByteDance salary reduction was due to the annual salary package, which includes overtime pay. In the past, the salary consisted of “basic salary + double overtime pay for alternate Saturday work weeks + rent subsidies and other benefits”. If calculated based on 22 working days per month, overtime pay for alternate Saturday work weeks accounted for nearly 20% of an employee’s monthly income. After the big/small workweek termination, the wages plunged so much that many employees who entered the company for high salaries found it unacceptable.

In addition, the reduction in working hours does not equate to a reduced workload. The industry remains competitive, with the same performance appraisal methods and work management processes. This means that although there are two days off, the workload, the number of teams, and the project cycle remains the same, causing more work stress for employees.

Some employees are also unable to adjust to the new culture, as they used to tap on overtime to showcase their willingness to work hard, thereby gaining the favour of their employer. Nowadays, it is hard to impress the employer by working extra hours. With a reduction in pay and low chances of being promoted, accompanied by the same heavy workload, many people left the Internet industry.

When will there be flexible work schedules?

ByteDance’s termination of the alternate Saturday workweek does not work. The company needs a more flexible method to address the overtime work culture and strike a balance between mandatory “overtime” and mandatory “end-of-work” requirements. Kuaishou, Tencent, and Sina have all emphasized “working overtime based on needs”. At the same time, BOSS direct hiring promised that the salary would remain unchanged after restoring the weekend rest days. Whether the Internet’s overtime culture can fade away remains to be determined.

Companies need to respect employees’ legitimate rights and interests, advocate a positive corporate culture, and improve the industry environment to solve the problem. Employees also need to understand that work is only part of life. Sacrificing health for a higher salary comes at a high cost.

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