China’s Top Court Says Excessive ‘996’ Work Culture Is Illegal
(Bloomberg) — China has issued its most detailed warning yet against the excessive-work culture that pervades the country’s largest corporations, as a backlash grows against the punishing demands of the private sector.
The Supreme People’s Court and Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security published a lengthy essay Friday about labor violations and unreasonable overtime, labeled ‘996’ because of the common practice of working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. It outlined 10 court cases — including but not limited to the tech industry — in which employees were forced to work extra hours, or put in harm’s way.
In one case, an unidentified tech firm asked employees to sign agreements to give up overtime pay, which the court ruled unlawful. In another, a media staffer passed out in the office restroom at 5.30 a.m. before dying of heart failure. The court ruled the death work-related and asked the company to pay the victim’s family about 400,000 yuan ($61,710).
China’s tech giants are grappling with public outrage over their grueling schedules, a backlash fueled by a growing chorus of complaints on social media and even deaths. Tech billionaires from Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. founder Jack Ma to JD.com Inc. chief Richard Liu have long endorsed the practice as necessary for survival in an intensely competitive industry — and the key to accumulating personal wealth.
Read more: China Loses a Tech Generation as the Big Payoff Promise Fades
But the tide is turning as Xi Jinping’s administration launches a campaign to rein in the growing influence of the country’s largest corporations, while calling on the private sector to share the wealth. The online criticism adds to the challenges for tech companies already weathering heightened scrutiny over their treatment of blue-collar workers and endemic issues such as forced drinking during official functions.
The controversy over long working hours was fueled earlier this year by the deaths of two workers at Pinduoduo Inc. One woman collapsed while walking home with colleagues at 1:30 a.m. and could not be resuscitated, while another employee committed suicide.
Internet companies including ByteDance Ltd. and Kuaishou Technology have in recent months taken initial steps to dial down working hours. China’s human resources ministry and the courts aim to develop guidelines to resolve future labor disputes, according to Friday’s notice.
“The overtime issues at some industries and companies have come to the public’s attention,” the court said in its notice. “Legally, workers have the right to corresponding compensation and rest times or holidays. Obeying the national regime for working hours is the obligation of employers. Overtime can easily lead to labor disputes, impact the worker-employer relationship and social stability.”
Read more: Employee Suicide Adds to Concern About Pinduoduo Work Practices
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