996 Declared Illegal by Ministry of Labor- What Does it Mean for Chinese Work Culture?

On the 26th of August 2021, the Chinese top court and Ministry of Labor released a statement reiterating the illegal nature of the 996 work culture that has become a token of tech industries in China. This is only the latest of a series of events which suggest that if Chinese work culture is still here to stay for now, at the very least, there is a shift in the narrative about it.

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996, or 九九六, refers to the strict and strenuous work routine enforced in many Chinese companies, through which workers work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. This adds up to a total of 72 hours per week, nearly double of the maximum 44 hour week described by Chinese law. 996, together with its older, angrier brother 007 (midnight to midnight seven days a week) is especially prevalent in Chinese tech companies, and has been praised by the likes of Jack Ma and other entrepreneurial role models. However, 996 is a very dangerous life standard: aside from the obvious mental health strain of devoting so much time to one’s job, the Center for Disease Control in the United States warns against overworking which can cause health issues ranging from weight gain to heart issues.

On top of the medical side effects, more evidence is starting to suggest that a strenuous work routine such as 996 might not be the best strategy in terms of productivity and efficiency. It has been suggested “Sang culture”, or the rising sense of disillusionment among young Chinese people, is a direct result of the cutthroat competition in academics and jobs. On the other hand, countries such as Iceland have seen productivity stay the same or even increase after implementing trials for a four day work week, a strategy which is gaining traction across the world. Despite the downsides of having overworked employees, employers and employees alike stepped forward online to defend the 996 work culture in China. The reason? Money.

A key difference between the four day work week trials in Iceland and a possible reduction of working hours in China is very simple: the trials in Iceland did not cause a change in pay for the workers and was instead subsidised by the government. In China, on the other hand, although 996 is not always properly compensated, workers are worried that less hours could mean less money. For many, that would mean not being able to support themselves, especially if they happen to live in one of the many metropoles where rent and housing prices have been steadily rising. 

There are doubts about whether or not this ruling will actually cause any meaningful changes in the implementation of work-hour laws. Nevertheless, when considered with the outrage caused by the recent Alibaba scandal concerning their toxic work environment and the rise in popularity of shows focused on the toxicity of office life such as《理想之城》, the governments’ intervention might just be the latest sign that China’s approach and mentality towards work culture is well on the way towards a significant shift in the direction of a more sustainable office life and work culture.

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