Reignited "996" Protests Could Forecast Increased Attention to Working Conditions in China

January 15, 2021

Renewed massive protests over a work culture that demands more from workers than is allowed under Chinese overtime regulations could preview intensified enforcement across the country.

Social movement against “996” reignited:  In 2019, an online protest by Chinese tech workers against GitHub erupted over the commonly used “996” schedule in the nation’s tech industry.  Under the 996 regimen, companies encouraged and expected new tech employees to work demanding shifts from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., plus overtime, for six days a week without extra pay.   

The 996 schedule is technically illegal under China’s labor law, which limits the number of overtime hours for employees and requires overtime pay.  However, the de facto application of 996 had been met with little official resistance or enforcement in China, without authorities acknowledging the problem—until now. 

Shanghai labor regulators recently stated they had sent a team to investigate Pinduoduo’s labor contracts and work hours.  Meanwhile, China’s official Xinhua News Agency denounced the company’s practice for breaking the law in encouraging overwork.  

In a significant and symbolic move, the Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper commented that it was unfair of dictatorial managers to demand excessive overtime.  

The change in attitude may be attributed to concerns that a massive negative public reaction could disrupt social “harmony,” and a desire by the Chinese government to tighten control of its private tech companies after a recent conflict with Jack Ma and his Ant group. 

Global companies, who generally comply with the labor laws, thus far have remained inconspicuous on this issue.  However, with wider scrutiny on working hours, there is an increased chance of being targeted by the local and national labor law enforcement groups.  In today’s environment, it will only take one disgruntled employee’s social media post to cast an entire company under the spotlight.

Looking ahead:  CHROs and HR executives in China need to be wary of this development, understand the company’s formal and informal practices on overtime management, and review and update employees’ contracts if needed, to ensure compliance with the law.  HR Policy Global will monitor the evolution of this issue and update with any significant changes.