China's High Court Warns Employers' '996' Schedule Illegal
By Yang Ming September 04, 2021
China's labor laws have long stated that a workday is eight hours long and overtime must be paid to any worker putting in more than 44 hours a week.
For many of China's workers today that describes an idyllic daily grind given the common practice of companies demanding that employees follow a '996' schedule â€” 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week â€” to keep their jobs as employers have devised ways around loosely enforced laws.
Entrepreneurs such as Jack Ma, who founded the online retail giant Alibaba, and Richard Liu, chief of e-commerce platform JD.com, praised 996 as their internationally lauded enterprises made them billionaires. They have since walked back their praise, however, as the Chinese government has cracked down its wealthiest citizens.
After the deaths of two workers earlier this year at the online agricultural marketplace app Pinduoduo, long-simmering dissatisfaction in tech and other globally competitive sectors boiled over into public outcry.
Following a ruling last week by China's highest court, employers are on notice: 996 is illegal.
"The overtime issues at some industries and companies have come to the public's attention," the Supreme People's Court said in its decision. "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."
Last week's ruling comes as the Xi administration moves to boost the birthrate, even as Chinese couples point to grueling demands of work, child and elder care, and many young Chinese, fed up with a culture of overwork, are "lying flat" to express their frustration.
China's courts and ministries will now develop guidelines to resolve future labor disputes, according to the Aug. 26 ruling, which cited numerous cases focused on required overtime â€” most but not all of which involved tech companies.
In one case, a courier delivery company employee identified as Zhang was required to work a 996 schedule in 2020. He refused citing China's labor laws.
The company fired him, saying he had failed to fulfill his duties.
Zhang filed a lawsuit against his former employer for wrongful termination.
The high court ruled in favor of Zhang, citing Chinese Labor Law Article 41, saying overtime is capped at 36 hours per month. "The firm's required working hours violated the Labor Law, thus it is deemed illegal," the high court said in its order to pay Zhang 8,000 RMB or about $1,230 dollars for illegal termination.
Another case involved the labor rights violation of a man identified only as "Li" who died of overwork in December 2018. That year, Li had less than three days off in August, September and November, during which he worked 319, 293 and 322.5 hours respectively. His survivors sued the company shortly after his death.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security recognized the death as a work injury, according to the court, which ordered the company to pay 766,911 RMB or about $119,000 dollars to Li's family in compensation, saying his "right to rest was severely violated."
In May 1995, China implemented a 40-hour, five-day workweek â€” standard in the U.S. and many other developed countries.
Since then, many big tech firms and private companies, driven to maximize profits, trim labor costs and compete in a global marketplace, have adopted the 996 model. In 2019, Ma famously said on China's Twitter-like social media platform Weibo that "It's a blessing to be able to do 996."
"If you are not doing 996 when you are young, when can you do it? If we are doing things we love, 996 is not a problem at all," he wrote. The post was soon deleted after vocal criticism from Chinese netizens.
Li Qiang, founder and executive director of the New York-based China Labor Watch, told VOA Mandarin that the 10 cases, all found in favor of the workers, are an important signal that the 996 practice may be coming to an end.
"China has many laws restricting overtime and forced work, but there were no legal precedents to follow," he told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview. "These 10 cases send a signal that China's existing laws could be implemented."
Li also pointed out that the move might have certain political goals, as Chinese regulators have begun cracking down on the country's tech companies in a bid to promote so-called social justice. But it's possible, he added, that companies will develop certain "countermeasures."
"We still need to wait and see if the 996 culture [will] actually disappear," he said.
Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer who is a visiting professor at the Pozen Family Center for Human Rights at the University of Chicago, told VOA Mandarin that while the court's warning is a step in the right direction, he worries about enforcement.
"In many places in China, businessmen and government officials have overlapping interests, so the protection of labor rights is very difficult," he told VOA Mandarin by phone.
Liang Xiaojun, a lawyer at Beijing's Daoheng Law Firm, said the warning also has something to do with China's recent push for the three-child policy and its crackdown on private tutoring to reduce the costs of raising kids â€” all part of a bid to boost population growth.
"They aim at reducing working hours, so young people have time to fall in love, get married, and have kids," he told VOA.
Li from China Labor Watch argued that the ultimate protection of workers' rights lies in the formation of an independent union that will represent employee interests and rights.
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the only labor union in China, says in its charter that the union is "a mass organization of the working class led by the Chinese Communist Party."
"Without independent labor unions, workers' rights can't be properly protected," Li warned. "The Chinese Communist Party could potentially have a regulation to protect workers' rights today, and another regulation to protect the companies' interests tomorrow.
"In the end, no one is really protected."
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