The year 2019 is nearing its end. It has been a challenging year for Chinese technology companies due to various reasons such as a slowing domestic economy and the trade war between China and the United States. In addition, this has also been a hard year for ordinary workers. When we review what has sparked widespread discussion among the public, we can see anxiety is deep in their hearts.
The 9-9-6 work schedule is synonymous with life at Chinese tech companies (working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week). However, this requirement, although unwritten, has led to an eruption of dissatisfaction this year.
In January, Hangzhou-based Youzan, an e-commerce SaaS service vendor, was caught in a whirlwind of harsh criticism online after some exposed the company’s demand that all employees punch in at 9:30 am and punch out at 9:30 pm and to work six days a week. This led to an investigation on whether Youzan had breached labor laws, although local labor authorities concluded that the company was not running a 12-hour work schedule.
In April, some Chinese programmers took out their anger towards working overtime by creating a new GitHub project dubbed 996.ICU, where ICU refers to the possibility of ending up in intensive care because of their tough work schedules.
The coined term 996.ICU quickly gained attention within the programmers’ community as more joined in. They called for boycotts on companies such as Alibaba, Suning.com, and Huawei, which applied the 996 or similar working schedules.
After discussions on this topic got even more people involved , Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma, who was the company’s chairman at the time, joined in and called 996 a blessing, irritating many who once considered him a heroic entrepreneur.
More and more individuals who have blurred the divide between work and life, have started to weigh in on 996, asking themselves whether it is worth working overtime at the cost of their health and in exchange for higher pay.
Falling ill and getting fired
If the 996.ICU has been a lingering worry for many who have actually been working overtime since the start of this year, a former employee of China’s second largest gaming company NetEase just trumped them all, by sharing a concrete example.
The unidentified former game designer of NetEase exposed via his WeChat Public Account in November that the company kicked him out of the office without providing valid reasons after being diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) and without compensating him properly and legally. The disease could affect the heart’s ability to pump blood so that death could be a high possibility for him .
He decided to fight for his life as he had no other choice, by resorting to the country’s labor dispute arbitration authorities and to the media. He demanded RMB 620,000 (USD 88,000) in compensation for all his overtime work and for being laid off illegally.
“In my five years at NetEase, I never came late or left early. No matter how many weeks I worked overtime until midnight or under the 996 scheme in a row, I never came late the next day.”
His story was read more than 100,000 times , forcing NetEase to respond twice to ease public anger. The company ended up apologizing for the “rough” and “insensitive” behavior during this affair and promised that it would spare no efforts in aiding the employee with his medical treatment.
His misery was shared by many technology workers, who started to question whether 996 is a blessing and whether it is worth to work 996 at the cost of their health and even lives.
Another WeChat post was read more than 100,000 times right after the NetEase scandal. “Experts: Is there any way to work until midnight each day but not die early” was the headline while “No” was the only word in the story, serving as an answer.
If Jack Ma’s claim that 996 is a blessing and the NetEase scandal just proves the contrary, Huawei’s practice involving one of its former employees has just lowered the bar for how a company can treat its former employees and has gone far beyond what an ordinary Chinese could imagine.
Li Hong Yuan, who worked with Huawei’s sales department for inverters—a marginal business of the company—was asked to leave in January after serving the company for 12 years. He demanded a 2N compensation (N represents how many years one employee works for a company), as indicated by China’s labor law, under which companies are required to sign unfixed-term employment contracts with employees who have served the same company for more than ten years.
Li did get 2N compensation but at a cost of 251 days in prison as the telecommunication giant reported to the police that he made it by resorting to extortion, hence the man was soon arrested.
It turned out that Li was innocent and local prosecutors paid him RMB 100,000 in the form of “national compensation” on November 25 for being wrongly jailed.
The dispute went mostly unnoticed, until Li shared a copy of the compensation decision to an online WeChat chat group, also including Huawei’s former employees, on November 28. Without his knowledge, the copy was later shared with some Chinese media outlets, which reported the story, gaining widespread attention from Chinese netizens.
Huawei’s scandal was shortly after NetEase finally made a settlement with the game designer, incurring even more public anger.
After staying mute for days, Huawei finally replied that the company has the right and obligation to report practices it suspects of being illegal to China’s judicial authorities, adding that if Li thought his rights have been violated and offended, he was welcome to resort to legal means, including suing the company.
This response further enraged the public, including several Chinese media outlets.
Chinese media outlets said Huawei did not have sympathy as it even refused to apologize to its former employee who was unfairly jailed due to its own practice, while another media outlet Yufucaijing wrote that the “251 incident” could lead to a fatal public relations crisis even more serious than the current sanctions imposed by the United States.
The year 2019 could be a decisive year for China’s hardworking technology workers, most of whom belong to the country’s middle class, have begun to think about their own destiny in a fast-growing sector and how to protect their rights.
In the long run, talents with clear awareness on duty and rights could become a blessing for the country’s technology sector, which has generated large companies with worldwide competitiveness such as Alibaba and Huawei.