Overseas Tech Workers Warn of 'Race to Bottom' in China Overtime Row

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Alibaba Group co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma gestures during a pannel session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 23, 2019.
Alibaba Group co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma gestures during a pannel session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 23, 2019.

Overseas tech workers have come out in support of colleagues in China, warning of a "race to the bottom" following comments made by tech tycoon Jack Ma about the "996" overtime culture in the industry.

Tech workers in China started a repository--usually used to share programming projects--on GitHub, a platform that is used daily by developers to collaborate on projects.

Calling it 996.ICU in reference to the grueling, 12 hours a day, six days a week schedule expected of many tech employees in China, they hit back at the growing pressure to put in regular overtime.

"By following the '996' work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (Intensive Care Unit)," the project description says, followed by a copy of China's Labor Law, under which such hours are illegal.

Alibaba founder and billionaire Ma has previously referred to a 72-hour working week as "a blessing."

"If we find things we like, 996 is not a problem. If you don't enjoy [work], every minute is torture," Ma wrote in recent blog post.

"We, the workers of Microsoft and GitHub, support the 996.ICU movement and stand in solidarity with tech workers in China," a statement signed by 150 tech workers on GitHub said. "We know this is a problem that crosses national borders."

The statement said workers at Microsoft and the industry as a whole faced similar pressures to work extreme overtime.

"Another reason we must take a stand in solidarity with Chinese workers is that history tells us that multinational companies will pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom as they outsource jobs and take advantage of weak labor standards in the pursuit of profit," the statement said.

"We have to come together across national boundaries to ensure just working conditions for everyone around the globe."

Widespread support seen

It said the 996.ICU page on GitHub had garnered more than 200,000 "stars", indicating widespread support for Chinese tech workers.

Since the repository went viral, however, Chinese browsers had restricted access to the page, warning users that it contains "malicious content," the statement said.

"We must entertain the possibility that Microsoft and GitHub will be pressured to remove the repository as well," it said. "We encourage Microsoft and GitHub to keep the 996.ICU GitHub repository uncensored and available to everyone."

Comments appended to the page via the "issues" section were mixed.

"It’s time to sing 《The Internationale》," wrote user wckgo, while user ilioner wrote: "There are plenty of places in Chengdu where you have to work from nine to 10 p.m."

"It's nearly International Labor Day, May 1 -- help wanted," wrote lcgtpr, while nufeng74 commented: "To oppose 996 is to promote job creation."

Meanwhile, users created a hashtag calling on supporters to send copies of China's Labor Law, which stipulates a 40-hour working week, to Ma, as a form of "humorous, artistic protest." Telecoms giant Huawei is also listed as a possible recipient.

Overtime should be limited to three hours a day, "for special reasons," totaling no more than 36 hours in any given month, to be paid at time-and-a-half, the law states.

But according to the 996.ICU page, many employees never see any overtime pay at all.

Huawei also seen as culprit

Journalist Wen Zhao said Huawei is notorious for forcing employees to work overtime.

"The 996 schedule seems to come from the internet industry," Wen said. "Huawei was the first to implement it, and ... Alibaba started it last year."

"These big companies will close ranks and will turn this working pattern into a routine practice; they have huge influence," he said.

According to an analysis in the Financial Times, in the past, Chinese programmers worked overtime in the past, but were better rewarded with share options, benefits that are seldom seen in today's industry.

Gong Shujia, a telecommunications engineering expert in the United States, agreed.

“In the 1990s, Huawei brought in what it called the camp-bed ethos, meaning that employees would lay out a mattress in the office, sleeping and eating there, and working almost round the clock," he said.

He said there have been calls for GitHub to restrict access to companies imposing the 996 schedule on workers.

However, Wen Zhao said any pressure for change is unlikely to come from the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

"I don't think the Chinese government will investigate or sanction those big IT companies, because if they did, the companies might lay off employees, causing unemployment figures to rise," Wen said.

"And in China, it's pretty easy for the government to come to an agreement with companies," he said.

Reported by Shi Shan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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