‘996’ debate does not point to social crisis

By Shan Renping Source:Global Times Published: 2019/4/8 19:13:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Foreign media outlets have seized upon the recent wave of employee complaints coming from China's internet sector on the "996" schedule, where the workday begins at 9 am and finishes at 9 pm, six days a week. This schedule is seen as the latest social conflict in China. However, the issues at hand have been exaggerated, and therefore it is time for me to respond.

It is known that young programmers at high-tech companies, especially start-ups, work long hours. This is simply a manifestation of intense market competition and can only be resolved through market competition. When more employees quit because of the long work hours, large corporations will begin to reverse the competition by reducing work hours.

The issue is a global concern for high-tech companies, and start-ups in particular, to work long hours. I read an article a dozen years ago about Silicon Valley employees who worked over 10 hours a day and earned high salaries, which was status quo back then. 

In China, working overtime is commonplace and includes police officers and other civil servants, media personnel, taxi drivers, and so on. As a member of the media industry, we work beyond the "996" schedule, and a few civil servants that I know have even more grueling schedules. 

Developed economies in East Asia have undergone periods of utilizing a longer work schedule. Up until now, overtime has been credited as "better performance" in some East Asian companies, where employees are afraid to leave before the boss. 

When I visited Japan, my Japanese guide, who was a civil servant and interpreter, worked harder than his Chinese counterparts. China's Labor Law stipulates that employees work 40 hours five days a week. The law was designed to protect industrial workers and vulnerable groups in different fields, and it has served a function in this regard. 

Computer programmers at high-tech companies get to pick and choose their jobs. Aside from the Labor Law protection, they have more leeway to resign from jobs that offer low salaries and longer working hours and have an advantage with their employers that industrial workers and grass-roots civil servants do not have.

The Chinese are hard-working, which has contributed to the country's modernization. 

In fact, during China's pursuit of modernization, the Chinese devoted much more than Westerners to their success by working longer hours and keeping themselves occupied during the weekends. 

Look at those who currently live in first-tier cities like Beijing. How many of those people waste their leisure time? 

Weekend traffic jams are just as bad on weekdays. 

I support any endeavor that China should make in promoting rapid socioeconomic progress and reducing the average workload to give employees more rest time. I believe such a change could gradually take place, and the complaints on the "996" work week could possibly make sense.  

However, I don't believe the new complaints will have a political impact on China's competitiveness as Westerners thought they would. 

Some are envious of the young Chinese elites who are smart, capable and hard-working, and they do not hope to engage in "diligence-based competition" with them. This mind-set is understandable. 

Overall, this is not an easy issue. China's high-tech companies should try to give their young employees more leisure time to increase work efficiency as their good mental and physical state are significant factors necessary for long-term development. Additionally, young professionals are placing greater importance on individual rights and family life. This is a practice which bigger companies should follow to sustain healthy development.  

This article was written with the help of an editor who is taking her Qingming Festival holiday outside of Beijing. I feel bad about taking up her leisure time. Besides paying her overtime, the newspaper will also try to avoid such disturbances. 

The author is a commentator with the Global Times. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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