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Marketplace

On punishing schedules, China’s tech workers are exhausted

Jennifer Pak Jul 10, 2019
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A Chinese tech firm showcases its facial recognition security equipment at the Consumer Electronics Show in Shanghai June 2019. The success of these companies is partly built on the backs of workers putting in extreme overtime.
Charles Zhang/Marketplace

When Cheng Shi entered China’s tech industry six years ago as a user interface designer working on mobile apps, he was told long hours are routine.

“At this one big firm, my coworker told me that if it’s 9 p.m. and you see everyone else is still working, then you should also stay,” Cheng said. “It’s just to put on a show for the boss.”

Long hours are so common in China’s tech industry that the schedule has been referred to as “9-9-6” — shorthand for a 72-hour work week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.

In contrast, the national average in China is 46.3 hours per week and 34.4 hours in the U.S., according to official statistics for May.

The hard work of these tech workers has been credited for helping Chinese firms challenge the likes of Google and Amazon in Southeast Asia and other overseas markets.

However, there is a growing backlash against the grueling work schedule.

Huawei executive Shao Yang boasts at the Consumer Electronics Show in Shanghai in June that his employees are voluntarily staying at the office past 10 p.m. because they are motivated to help the company, currently targeted by the U.S. Photo credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
Huawei executive Shao Yang boasts at the Consumer Electronics Show in Shanghai in June that his employees are voluntarily staying at the office past 10 p.m. because they are motivated to help the company, currently targeted by the U.S. Photo credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace

In the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, home to tech giant Alibaba, Cheng said lights are still on at the firm’s office headquarters through the night and on weekends.

A few years ago, he shared an apartment with a fellow user interface designer, Zheng Jinghao, but they didn’t see each other much.

“Sometimes (Zheng) didn’t return at night, or he would come back very late, like midnight. Then, on weekends, he would still be at work,” Cheng said.

“We lived in the same apartment but [Cheng] might be lucky if he saw me once a month,” said Zheng, who now lives on the other side of Hangzhou city.

Over the last decade, Zheng has worked for some of the biggest Chinese tech firms on drones, robots and virtual reality designs.

“Once, I went for a week without showering because I was stuck at the office,” he said.

Screen grab of security camera footage of a 24-year-old programmer who fainted at work in Shenzhen in 2018. The date on the footage shows the incident happened close to 6 p.m. on a Saturday. Local media reports say he fainted after working continuous overtime.
Security camera footage of a 24-year-old programmer who fainted at work in Shenzhen in 2018. The date on the footage shows the incident happened close to 6 p.m. on a Saturday. According to local media reports, he fainted after working continuous overtime.

At another company where Zheng worked, the employer offered him bonuses, late night snacks, and a fold-out bed under his desk to sleep on — things to encourage long hours. It put a lot of demands on employees who were off the clock.

“The first time the office calls your company cell phone and you don’t answer, it’s okay. But if it happens a second time, you will be fined $7. If you don’t reply to a message sent on the WeChat app, you will get fined $15,” Zheng said.

He says this was an unwritten rule and he was fined many times.

In a more extreme case last year, a woman in Ningbo, a city in the eastern Zhejiang province, was fired from a beverage shop for not responding to a WeChat message from her manager.

Local media reported that the manager sent the message to employees in a group chat after 10 p.m., by which time the woman was already asleep.

This incident ignited a discussion on whether an employee could refuse to respond to after-hour work emergencies.

But it is high-paid tech workers who have pushed the topic of workers’ rights to a national debate.

In March, software developers complained on Microsoft’s online code-sharing community Github that working such long hours can be deadly.

A food delivery worker in Shanghai takes a rest. Chinese workers on average work 12 hours more per week than their American counterparts according to U.S. and China government statistics for May. Photo credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace
A food delivery worker in Shanghai takes a rest. Chinese workers on average work 12 hours more per week than their American counterparts, according to U.S. and China government statistics for May. Photo credit: Charles Zhang/Marketplace

The discussion was labeled 996.ICU, which, according to the description on the page, is an “ironic saying” among Chinese developers.

“By following the ‘996’ work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (Intensive Care Unit),” the description read.

Prior to the debate, Zheng felt there was no way to refuse overtime work in the tech industry.

“This made me realize that some of those work policies were inhumane,” he said.

Big tech bosses, however, have largely dismissed these complaints.

Tech hardware giant Huawei, currently blocked by the U.S. in its global expansion plans, boasts that its employees are volunteering to work past 10 p.m.

“They asked me, ‘Do you have some assignments for us? We want to do more,’” chief strategy officer of Huawei Consumer Business Group, Shao Yang, told an audience at the Shanghai Consumer Electronics Show in June.

He said it reminded him of 20 years ago when Huawei was still struggling and the staff would stay past midnight to make product improvements because it was quieter then.

“But [the employees] were very happy when they got up the next day because they had solved some problems,” he said.

A banner from Github’s discussion page on 996.ICU - a shorthand for those against extreme overtime. Photo Credit: Github
A banner from Github’s discussion page on 996.ICU — a shorthand for those against extreme overtime. Photo Credit: Github

In April, Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma also said that to be able to work 12-hours a day was a “huge bliss.”

Some tech workers are saying no to extreme overtime.

“A friend of mine lost her husband suddenly a year after they got married. He worked at a big tech firm. He was only 31,” Zheng said.

He said his friend complained that married life felt no different than being single because her husband, a coder for a very big tech firm, would continue to work after he returned home.

“His death is definitely linked to long work hours,” Zheng said.

There are young people entering the tech industry now requesting no overtime and to have weekends off, which is not common in China.

However, because China’s economy is slowing down, there is a lot of job anxiety in the tech industry. Zheng believes overtime will be a criteria for those who want to keep their job.

These days, he still takes work calls on the weekends, but he has since moved into the healthcare sector, where overtime is not mandatory — and where he earns a third less.

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