The news of China’s inhumane working hour policies is in the spotlight in the high growth tech world. Last month, a Github user with the name “996icu” created a webpage that he shared on GitHub, to protest against the “996” work culture in Chinese tech companies. The “996” work culture is an unofficial work schedule that requires employees to work from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week, totaling up to 60 hours of work per week. In fact, such is the culture, that Chinese tech recruiters are instructed by their bosses to not hire people over 30 years of age. Close to three-quarters of tech workers in China are below thirty in age and the employers further promote this concept, per a Bloomberg post published by Shelly Banjo, Roving Asia Tech Reporter.
996 amassed more fire when Jack Ma, co-founder and executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, the Chinese rival to Amazon, defended the 12-hour, 6-day week working schedule and chastised people wanting a balanced and typical eight-hour work shift. In his own words, “To be able to work 996 is a huge blessing. If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work twelve hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining.”
Although the 996 culture violates Labor Law of the People’s Republic of China, and was the point of scrutiny and condemn by a large number of publishing firms, tech activists, and developers, a few are still favoring this inhumane culture. These are the so-called Silicon Valley investors and founders who are so jealous of China’s tech space that they are promoting other employers to follow China’s footsteps.
Silicon Valley Investors envy the Chinese 996 culture
It seems that regardless of the chastising and condemnation, the 996 culture has got the Silicon Valley spooked. Their argument, China’s 996 schedule is the kind of work ethic that will eventually help it become the superpower defeating the US. Something that all US founders and investors should aspire for.
“Founders: We’re up against JackMa (& China) *enforcing* a 72-hour work-week 996 = 6 days a week, 9 am to 9 pm. The same exact work ethic that built America! You can get on your twitter pedestal & attack Ma or you can make a plan to win.”
This is a tweet posted by Jason Calacanis, an Angel investor for Uber, Thumbtack, Wealthfront, and more companies.
He further adds, “Not going to tell you how many hours you should work, but I will tell you that you need a plan to fight heads up against Chinese companies — which will be going head-to-head with every startup every created in the next decade. Ignoring, deriding or dismissing China isn’t a plan.”
In January, Mike Moritz, a venture capitalist of Sequoia Capital wrote an editorial in the Financial Times titled “Silicon Valley would be wise to follow China’s lead.” He wrote that Silicon Valley has become “unhinged” with discussions about the “inequity of life.” He contrasted Silicon Valley tech culture with the work ethic in Chinese tech companies, where employees work for 14 hours six or seven days a week. He adds, “in many respects, doing business in China is easier than doing business in California.”
Other quotes from Moritz’s piece speaks volumes about the inhumane 996 culture and how Chinese employees recuperate with the reality of such extensive work hours.
“Top managers show up for work at about 8 am and frequently don’t leave until 10 pm. Most of them will do this six days a week — and there are plenty of examples of people who do this for seven. Engineers have slightly different habits: they will appear about 10 am and leave at midnight.
Beyond the week-long breaks for Chinese new year and the October national holiday, most will just steal an additional handful of vacation days. Some technology companies also provide a rental subsidy to employees who choose to live close to corporate HQ.
In China, by contrast, it is quite usual for the management of 10 and 15-year-old companies to have working dinners followed by two or three meetings.
Many of these high-flyers only see their children — who are often raised by a grandmother or nanny — for a few minutes a day.”
Moritz’s argument and his support for China’s 996 culture sparked a lively discussion on Quora. It has also invited a tsunami of unsurprisingly negative responses across the Silicon Valley tech community.
Andy Manoske, former Associate at GGV Capital penned a blog post condemning Moritz’s condescending statements. Andy says, “Mike’s comments on paternity leave and seemingly slavish dedication run contrary to empirical evidence of the success of maintaining work life balance. Mike himself (an investor who has never actually worked in Silicon Valley as an operator and joined Sequoia after being a journalist) seems out of touch with the brutal realities of Silicon Valley’s already-imbalanced work-life balance, and that his post is clearly just an attempt to “win points” with Chinese tech firms that Sequoia is courting.”
He further adds, “I feel this was a haphazard piece that read like a desperate attempt to somewhat patronizingly woo Chinese startups (most of whom will not read the Financial Times) and seemingly establish Western credibility on China.”
One of the Quorans, Bowen Li wrote, “I think somebody read their history book in reverse order. Societies progress by giving people more rights and freedoms over time, not less. Creative, information work – the most valuable type of work that happens in Silicon Valley – does not benefit from increased hours. You cannot create twice as much innovation by putting in twice the hours. The human brain simply fatigues past a certain point and you get diminished or negative returns. People aren’t machines; thinking of this type of highly skilled work as “hours in, product out” is simply the wrong way to look at it.”
According to job-hunting site Maimai, reports Reuters, the tech sector was the only industry out of thirteen surveyed to see more people leave than join between October 2018 and February 2019. This means 996 can result in an additional cost for tech firms, venture capitalists and analysts instead of increasing productivity.
“One of the highest costs in an organization is high employee turnover. A culture that is less focused on hours put in, may also become more effective if the focus is turned to output versus input,” said Rui Ma, a San Francisco-based investor who has funded startups in China and North America.
Tech solidarity and grassroots mobilization is necessary to eradicate 996
It is the tech workers solidarity which needs to fleshed out in order to eliminate the inhumane 996 culture. The tech worker groups should unionize and be backed by political campaigns, advocacy groups, and nonprofits to start a political conversation and effect change at an international level. This has already begun with Chinese state media newspaper People’s Daily criticizing the 996 culture, In an editorial they wrote, “Employees who object to 996 cannot be labeled as ‘slackers’ or ‘not fighters’. Their real needs should be considered.”
Recently, Microsoft and GitHub employees also drafted a petition in defense of the GitHub repository which could be under threat of Chinese censorship. The project is an initiative towards making the Chinese tech companies obey the labor laws and the international labor convention. The 996.ICU GitHub project description reads, “By following the ‘996’ work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (Intensive Care Unit).” This petition was signed by 50 tech employees altogether, including several from Google, urging Microsoft and GitHub not to remove the 996.ICU project from the GitHub site.
“We, the workers of Microsoft and GitHub, support the 996.ICU movement and stand in solidarity with tech workers in China. We know this is a problem that crosses national borders. These same issues permeate across full time and contingent jobs at Microsoft and the industry as a whole,” the letter said.
Many tech workers in China are working 9am-9pm 6 days a week, a popular yet illegal company practice. In response, the Anti-996 License was published on GitHub, and we ask that Microsoft and GitHub keep it uncensored and available to everyone. Please sign: https://t.co/DZ48vNwzL8
— Microsoft Workers 4 Good (@MsWorkers4) April 23, 2019
International solidarity is a beautiful thing 😍 https://t.co/u1bhds0KmE
— Tech Workers Coalition (@techworkersco) April 23, 2019
Chinese technology workers are protesting online against grueling overtime hours at some companies, a rare push back against the work culture in the country’s tech industry. https://t.co/u2sYDWgGOM
— chinalaborwatch (@chinalaborwatch) April 5, 2019
Trade Unions should also come forward to support employees enduring 996 hardships. Discussing #996ICU Shen Jianfeng of the China University of Labor Relations, noted in the Global Times that “trade unions in China should indeed play an active role in safeguarding the rights and interests of workers” in the tech sector.
Other software developers also rose in mutual support of Chinese developers and more should do so.
I support the #996ICU, and the enthusiasm created does not need to be reflected in the cost of life and health. The 996 is an excessive squeeze on the development of human wisdom.#996問題
— R.W.Frederisk Holme (@rwfholme) April 24, 2019
Just hearing about #996icu from watching @PhillyD and as a software developer the thought of slogging through that many hours every week pains me. I don't think I can even be productive doing 9 hours of work a day, let alone 12. I hope they can break these practises.
— Peter Fox (@SlyFireFox) April 23, 2019
The US tech companies need to awaken to the Chinese competition but worrying about China’s 996 culture is not one of them. On the surface, working 996 is about companies working as many hours of the week as possible in order to beat the competition and to capture a market before the competition. However, a lot of other factors such as quality of the working environment, worker’s exposure to stress and the ability to frequently rest well actually determines a company’s progress. Working endlessly can make an individual less effective than if they work for fewer hours in a calmer manner.
Not only work, but the 996 schedule also deprives people of their free time and makes families and relationships suffer, for no extra pay and no extra output.
To conclude, Silicon Valley can, and should, learn lessons from Chinese tech cultures. But none of these should have to do with oppressive and authoritarian management philosophies like the unhealthy dedication to work or human rights eroding business decisions such as mass surveillance systems that are prevalent in China.
‘Developers’ lives matter’: Chinese developers protest over the “996 work schedule” on GitHub
Jack Ma defends the extreme “996 work culture” in Chinese tech firms
What the US-China tech and AI arms race means for the world – Frederick Kempe at Davos 2019