China’s internet workers willing to devote themselves to the booming industry, while expecting regulated working hours
Growing pains
Published: Jan 06, 2021 08:03 PM

People are working late in an office building in Beijing. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

The recent sudden death of a 23-year-old employee at China's e-commerce giant Pinduoduo has triggered vigorous public discussion about and condemnation of the overwork culture in China's tech industry. 

How serious is overtime issue at the internet companies? Suffering from the violation of labor rights and interests, why young people still make efforts to stay in the internet industry?

Global Times reporters Li Qiao and Huang Lanlan reached internet industry employees of top Chinese tech companies and foreign tech companies in China to learn about the true working conditions in different types of internet enterprises.

Chasing tech dream

After hearing the news of Pinduoduo employee's sudden death after overwork, Yang Le (pseudonym), a back-end developer at a top Chinese internet company based in Shenzhen, felt emotionally numb, neither surprised nor angry, but helpless.

However, he is still happy to see that it drew dramatic public attention to the overtime work culture in internet companies and hopes related authorities can introduce regulations to protect their rights.

"With the rapid development of the internet industry and the fierce competition, it is difficult to change the overtime culture by relying solely on industry self-discipline. We can only pin our hopes on national regulators," Yang told the Global Times.

Even when his project isn't busy, Yang starts work at 9:30 am and finishes around 9 pm.

The long-term overtime work sometimes makes him fall asleep at his desk, and he would drink two cups of coffee in the morning and afternoon. 

"Having a tired body but active mind is very uncomfortable," Yang said.

At first, he felt an acceleration in his heart beat, but he is getting used to the whole overtime work routine now.

"Being physically tired and mentally stressed while working overtime is not very efficient for the company. There is really no need to keep us working in the office all the time," he said.

Yang loved working from home during the epidemic, taking breaks whenever he wanted to, while accomplishing no less than working late at the company.

His company evaluates the KPI every six months with a provision for layoff. If Yang fails to meet the target three times in a row, he will be fired.

"This kind of evaluation mechanism puts growing pressure on everyone and creates cutthroat competition in the team. In order to ensure that I am not ranked in the bottom 30 percent, I have to keep improving," he said.

Even if the company does not have rigid requirements, the rapid iteration of the internet industry itself is forcing programmers like Yang to constantly learn and improve.

"In the past, we all used C++ language, but now GO programming language is popular. After I finish my job, I have to take the initiative to work overtime to learn, or I'm afraid of being eliminated by the industry," Yang said.

Yang got married last year and plans to have a kid in three years. He worries his job won't allow him to take care of his kid.

He says programmers are afraid they will be eliminated in their 40s in the industry or get sick sooner or later.

Yang had thought of a career change, but there was no good chance. "After all, my annual salary is around 600,000 yuan ($92,868), which is relatively high in China," he said.

Yang said most of his diligent and down-to-earth colleagues who work as programmers come from modest families, and salary is a top consideration when they choose the major in college and job after graduation.

The internet industry is a good choice for migrant workers if they want to be able to buy a house and get married in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen on their own salaries, without the support of family. So Yang has no regrets about getting into the business.

A female employee is working overtime at her desk. Photo: VCG

Riding on the wave

A 30-year-old programmer surnamed Chen, working with ByteDance based in Beijing, told the Global Times that he feels sudden death won't occur to him, but the constant overtime and work pressure leave him chronically tired.

"The young workforce of programmers pays the price for the trial-and-error business mode and quest of growth by companies and industries. We also use youth to gamble on our future in this industry," he noted.

Chen has a "long week, short week" work schedule and is evaluated every two months. He is always on standby to solve problems at work until midnight every day.

During a critical period of a project in 2019, he worked overtime until 4 am every day, and his brain was still active after the work was over, staying awake until 5 am.

After years of overtime and work pressure, Chen now suffers from insomnia and fatigue. 

"I feel great pressure at work. My heart is uncomfortable and my hands shake occasionally," Chen said, adding that "my biggest wish is to enjoy two days off every week."

ByteDance has held internal discussions and voting several times about resuming the normal weekend schedule; however, there are no changes so far, according to Chen.

Chen suspects that internet bosses are also aware of the fatigue of grassroots employees, but no one has the courage to be a pioneer of change in the industry.

He believed that every historical milestone was achieved by the hard work and sacrifice of a generation. 

"In this internet era, it may be that we need the efforts of programmers to achieve the rapid development of China's internet industry," Chen noted.

However, he still hopes that the regulators will introduce policies to ensure a more healthy and sustainable development of the industry, and that the working environment in the internet field will not be so difficult in a few years.

'Easy but insignificant'

Some employees of foreign tech companies' branches in China, by contrast, enjoy a relatively flexible work schedule.

A programmer surnamed Dai, who works for a renowned US tech giant's China subsidiary, said he has so much leisure time at present that he can even spend two hours at the gym on weekday afternoons.

"Many of my coworkers arrive at the company after 10 am, deal with emails for about 30 minutes, then go to lunch, take a nap, and then go to the gym - usually we don't start a day's work until 3 pm," Dai told the Global Times.

Dai is nonetheless not pleased with that. "My company's main R&D departments are in the US, not in China, and that's partly why we Chinese employees are not busy - we don't touch the company's core business," he said.

Dai's major job is to gather reports of problems and failures by the company's Chinese clients. He and his Chinese coworkers solve the problems they are capable to solve, and hand over those they can't handle to their American colleagues.

Having long been dealing with "easy but insignificant tasks," Dai said he sometimes envies his peers at Chinese domestic tech firms, who, as Dai described, are "hardworking, dedicated, passionate and highly competitive."

"They are able to participate in company's top priority projects, keeping themselves at the forefront of this fast-paced IT industry," Dai sighed. "I'm afraid I'm far behind them."

China's booming tech industry has given birth to lots of world-class enterprises such as Huawei, Alibaba and ByteDance, Dai said. "Working for a foreign tech company is no longer attractive to many Chinese employees now," he said. "I may consider job-hopping in the near future."