Modern Slavery: China's 996 Work Culture
Even though China’s labour laws call for a 44 hour work week, its work culture narrates an entirely different story. The popular term ‘996’ is used to recount the Chinese work schedule which stands for 9:00 am to 9:00 pm 6 days a week.
This entrenched norm has a strong whiff of apparatchik culture.
This work schedule can be traced back to the Danwei system which was a socialistic way of living that emerged in China in the late 1950s and was curbed when China opened up in 1978 – but its ideological structure still influences urban population and is deeply embedded in contemporary China even after half a century. The 'Danwei' mentality pervades Chinese management culture to this day particularly in companies like Tencent and Huawei. Namely, the system overstressed organisational management, rigid flow of production and worker immobility , which ended up stagnating social stratification and development of urban spaces.
The system was not just restricted to China but many Western and European countries adopted this method in the past of a corporate run society or a welfare society to fulfill the needs that were left overlooked due to an underdeveloped market or government. The difference is welfare society was established for a short duration to fulfill the needs of a particular section whereas the Danwei system was a national strategy from the grassroot level which is why it is still ingrained deeply in China. Unrestrained global capitalism and a Confucian culture of hierarchy and compliance integrate to become a form of modern enslavement.
Productivity cannot be controlled, however how employees utilise their time can be. There are also many cultural elements at play here- workers aren’t encouraged to pursue individual goals, only company goals. Companies want to own their employees and making it practically impossible to pursue a side business if you’re working 12 hour days six days a week with every part of their life intertwined with their profession. They can often be seen as living in the same area as their coworkers and spending their leisure time building relationships with their colleagues.
As a society, the older generations in China associate long working hours with success, which in turn puts every next generation under more duress to perform.
The upper middle class is fleeing China at an unprecedented rate, specifically to escape this culture. All the real talent and innovators from China are simply leaving to work under better conditions elsewhere since their talents are in high demand. Chinese companies that insist on these archaic practices (which is basically every IT company) and a lack of work life balance are going to soon be unable to produce products of similar quality to the West due to this departure of talent.
In recent times, Chinese government has been clamping down on big tech corporations for the grueling work hours ever since the social media backlash of Jack Ma, a Chinese tech billionaire often described as a blood sucking capitalist, glorified 996 work culture and called it a “blessing” and everyone who isn’t eager in working twice the normal amount to add to his bank balance “cowards”.
“Unpaid compulsory overtime” is a great euphemism for slavery.
China’s labour laws allow for a maximum of a 44 hour week. The legal limit for overtime is also 36 hours. This has not been well administered as workers can be seen working for almost twice as much time every week and are rarely ever compensated for overtime.
Millennials and Gen Z are more educated than previous generations, less fond of verticality and apprehensive to the grind mentality. As a result, an online protest, 996 ICU,was launched in March 2019. Initiated by an anonymous user on Github, a Microsoft-owned code sharing online community, this movement emphasised how working 12 hour days 6 days a week risked sending workers to intensive care units which was actually the case for several Chinese employees.
While the outcry is limited to the digital realm, Beijing’s voice seems to be growing louder on labour rights.
Cases are being fought in the Supreme Court of China by workers, which are again setting examples for how employers need to change their work policies or else they will lose. The Chinese workforce also saw the slowest population growth in decades and for them to gain a competitive edge in the market in the long run, they are obliged to incentivise their employment system.
Such irony a Chinese socialist revolution has wrought. Workers of the World unite, indeed!