The Supreme Court’s Decision Against 996: Looking from Inside

Posted by Written by Op-ed by Guilherme Campos Reading Time: 6 minutes

In his latest op-ed, Guilherme Campos contends with the mixed industry response about the significance of the Supreme Court ruling against ‘996’ work hours.

Following our article “996” is Ruled Illegal: Understanding China’s Changing Labor System, we decided it would be pertinent to talk with the people that actually have to endure this work schedule on a daily basis and get their take on it.

As the decision issued by the Supreme Court and related institutions was announced only some weeks ago, many questions still remain in the air: Will everything really change and the Supreme Court’s ruling be enforced across the board in both public and private companies? Will everything remain the same and this ruling be simply seen as a media move made in the hopes to appease the masses? Will the workers themselves take the initiative and complain to their local labor bureau when they witness illegalities within their company or will there be a pact of silence between workers and companies, knowing full well that some workers (maybe the majority) will always welcome overtime, in the hope to receive the extra benefits that come with it and achieve the life status that is regarded as obligatory in Chinese society, where owning material possessions is synonymous with success?

The current zeitgeist in China and motivation behind court ruling

Before we move on to our interviewee’s answers and opinions, it is important to contextualize this story with the current zeitgeist in China and what exactly motivated the government and the apex court to label the 996 working schedule as illegal.

First, it’s important to remember that the 996 system’s biggest proponents were Jack Ma – the founder of Alibaba, and many other billionaires who have recently fallen out of grace with the government. The ban on ‘996’ may be partially motivated as a way for the government to show that companies and billionaires don’t rule the country, the government does, and this show of strength is a way of “putting them in their place”

Secondly, even though the Supreme Court declared 996 illegal, the practice was already illegal anyway under a different compliance – the Labor Law of the People’s Republic of China limits work hours to 8 hours per day and 44 per week, giving very few exceptions for extension and never in the area of 996 (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week). Under the context of “common prosperity”, in which the government has sworn to make sure that the lower and more impoverished classes are protected, and also that the “social mobility lift” actually works, one could reasonably speculate that the motivation of the court’s decision was not only in the interest of the workers, but also a move to address the bigger social goal.

Another concern, and directly connected to the second reason, is the recent belief that the ascension in social status – “the social mobility lift” that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is becoming more and more difficult. Even though China lifted many millions from poverty in the past 40 years, the gap in wealth keeps increasing between the poorest and the richest, making some people lose hope and follow the recent cultural trend of “laying flat”, which is the belief that people, instead of striving for higher pay and social status in life, should choose to simply lie down, give the bare minimum and enjoy life, since many of the goals of prosperity seem too hard or too unrealistic to achieve.

Some of these unrealistic goals include purchasing a home, which in Tier 1 cities in China has become almost impossible due to extremely high prices and mortgage rates, as well as high education costs, etc.

All of these factors mentioned above make the 996 matter extremely complex and also tricky to speculate how the situation will evolve in the near future.

Public opinion

This article would not be complete without a contribution from those that worked (and still do) in the “996 world”.

After speaking with several people from different backgrounds, the common opinion is that nothing will truly change. Both Chinese and foreigners alike (some of the few select working in Chinese companies) think that the culture of competitiveness and the culture of silence against their employer’s illegalities will continue because of the desire for promotions and money and the fear of getting blacklisted, informally or formally, in the industry.

One of our most opinionated interviewees was a foreign male working in the tech industry in South China who joined the company (a leading global and Chinese tech company) after a phone call where he was invited for an interview. He decided to accept the offer because of the company’s reputation, as well as the promise of professional and personal growth, something that he did not get in his previous company.

As for his experience with the 996 schedule or at least a working schedule that goes beyond the legal one, his answer was that he was okay with the trade of earning more, learning more, and achieving more and accepted that he had to “go the extra mile” in order to do so. Also, he admitted that the company definitely pushed him to do so, but the rewards came to those who abide by this culture.

As for his opinion on if the Supreme Court decision will be fully accepted and implemented, he believes that his company will do so, since they don’t want to be reported as being non-compliant. However, he says that“due to the level of competition and of speed, that are both so high, it will be the Darwin law forcing the employees to push a little the boundaries of their working commitment and dedication to the company. And of course, the larger the company is, the bigger the competition is to get to the top level so you will need to understand that pushing yourself may be seen as an advantage on your climb up the corporate ladder.

Another question that we thought interesting to ask was whether there was any difference in treatment between Chinese and expats, when it comes to this working schedule. Our interviewee’s answer was that as a foreigner, or as he put it “an outsider”, he feels the need to prove himself and to bring something different from the local manpower, so the pressure to work harder to bring something different exists.

To finalize, I asked him about the rather more philosophical concept of the 996 system. On the one hand, in some companies, you can earn much more than any normal job, but the demand for your availability is 24/7. I asked him why he thinks some people manage to work like this for such a big part of their lives and what motivates them.

His answer was that in his view, the desire around real estate properties and ownership of goods is still high in China and in a highly competitive working culture, the only way to earn more money, is to work more and give more of your time to the company that is hiring you. It’s the culture of “if you don’t want to sacrifice yourself, the next person will be ok with making that sacrifice”.

Also, he shared an interesting thought that a colleague once imparted to him: “The work force at the base of the pyramid works for money, the middle level works for recognition, while the top works for ideals and fingerprint in the company.”

According to him, this thought paints an accurate picture of what he sees these days in Chinese and tech companies.

Conclusion

Despite thoughts and opinions expressed in this article, as well as in any other article on the Internet, the question of whether the supreme court decision is to be obeyed in its entirety remains in the air.

The present writer thinks that some companies, due to their political exposure or due to their owner(s) falling out of grace with the government (the antitrust campaign, the cybersecurity requirements, and the “common prosperity” movement are putting pressure on billionaires), these companies will most likely feel the weight of the law and be afraid that an example will be made out of them.

Other companies that “fly slightly more under the radar” and that also impose an extreme competitive working culture will change little to nothing. From scheduling calls to “trainings” after work schedule, such companies will find ways to run their business as usual. Employees in such companies will mostly comply and “get on with the program”, believing that the industry’s work culture is stronger than the law or for fear of losing their job.

Things will only truly change, and people will only start having a proper career/personal life balance if employees have the courage to draw a red line and state their limits. If enough people do it, then the culture will change. Culture may indeed be stronger than the law, but it is the people that define the culture, not companies. Given so many other socioeconomic pressures at bay, this is a social change that is just biding its time.


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China Briefing is written and produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The practice assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Please contact the firm for assistance in China at china@dezshira.com.

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