Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 1 January 2021



Former Chinese Huawei employee speaks out on Shenzhen's '996' culture as city enforces paid leave

A wideshot of a man standing on his balcony at home.
Zeng Meng says Huawei employees were asked to sign a contract stating they accept working overtime voluntarily.(Supplied)

For five years, former Huawei employee Zeng Meng embraced China's infamous "996" culture of working from 9:00am to 9:00pm, six days a week.

Key points:

    Mr Zeng, a power engineer, was employed by the Chinese telecoms giant as a product manager in Shenzhen in 2012, after working for several other major technology companies in the south-eastern city widely regarded as China's Silicon Valley.

    The job quickly "took over" his personal life — he had no time for his family, leisure or even sleep.

    He said he lost interest in everything except work.

    Mr Zeng's situation was not uncommon. The 996 culture is prevalent in Shenzhen, where China's technology and innovation hub is separated by just a river from Hong Kong.

    "Often, we were still in meetings until 11:00pm."

    However, Shenzhen yesterday became the first Chinese city to mandate that workers in "special industries" take paid leave, so that those "with a heavy mental and physical workload can avoid excessive burnout," according to regulations approved in October.

    Chinese employees who have worked up to 10 years with the same company are usually entitled to five days of annual leave, although they also have 11 days of paid public holiday leave.

    Under the new mandate, workers in the unspecified industries will be eligible for extra annual leave if they regularly work longer hours or need to be paid overtime for the occasional long days.

    The regulation was drafted in the same month Chinese President Xi Jinping called for the city to create another "miracle" in a speech marking the 40th anniversary of the city's transformation — from a fishing village to China's first special economic zone.

    The topic has prompted heated debate on social media, with many employees of China's top tech companies expressing mixed views on how the new regulations could impact their long and stressful working hours.

    '996 working, ICU waiting'

    A close-up of Alibaba Group co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma's face.
    Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba Group, once said working 12 hours a day for the company was a "blessing".(Reuters: Valery Sharifulin/TASS)

    The 996 work culture was first majorly called out in 2019 by some Chinese programmers who regularly worked overtime and up to 72 hours a week in Shenzhen's technology hub.

    The term "996" went viral after it was backed by tech giant bosses including Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, which led to widespread discussions on the impact of the work culture on employees' health and personal lives.

    "996 working, ICU waiting" was one phrase that gained popularity online.

    Mr Zeng said every Huawei employee was asked to sign a contract known as a "struggle agreement", stating they "accept overtime work voluntarily without claiming overtime pay, and forgo paid annual leave".

    The ABC has seen a copy of the struggle agreement, which has also been widely published by Chinese media.

    "The agreement has become a beautiful term for endless exploitation, saying you have to have a fighting spirit," he said.

    "You signed it because everyone else had.

    As more companies in Shenzhen replicated Huawei's agreement, Mr Zeng said it led to benefits for companies at the expense of people's personal lives.

    "You can feel it when you talk to colleagues. It is common that everyone feels their mood has become more irritable," Mr Zeng said.

    "Imagine you have been endlessly pushed to hurry up and you have to do the same to others, everyone is so overwhelmed."

    Jimmy Jin, a former employee at a technology company in Shenzhen, told the ABC many people did not want to challenge the system because they believed their sacrifices would be rewarded with better opportunities.

    "Work has penetrated into every layer of my life," said Ms Jin, who is in her late 20s.

    "I had nothing to do except work. That's why I spent extra time working from home after leaving the office.

    "I had to see a psychologist and take medications to solve issues [related to] my mood."

    Why the new policy may not change the overwork culture

    General cityscape of Shenzhen, including the 100-floor tower Kingkey.
    The 996 culture breached many labour laws in China, including the law on extending working hours, experts say.(Reuters: Bobby Yip)

    Aiden Chau, a researcher from Hong Kong–based China Labour Bulletin, which tracks labour movements in China, told the ABC that Shenzhen had always been a testing ground for capitalistic ideas in China, but it was too early to say if the new policy could solve the overwork issue.

    Mr Chau said the new regulation did not specify what those "special industries" were, so it might not apply for everyone in the city.

    "For now, it's difficult to say whether the 996 working hours are related to this proposal," Mr Chau said.

    Mr Chau said the 996 culture breached many labour laws in China, including the law on extending working hours, the law on overtime payment and the law on penalties when breaking these laws.

    But due to the economic benefits generated by the system, Beijing chose to turn a blind eye to it, he said.

    "The minimum working hours under 996 is 72 hours. The standard working hours in China is 40 hours," he said.

    The 996 culture has become a systemic issue

    A man using computer at home
    Mr Zeng says some people work 996 because they believe they have to in order to stay at the company.(Supplied)

    Mr Zeng does not believe the overwork problem can be solved either.

    He used his personal experience to explain his rationale, including how China's media censorship has helped to cover up issues in companies like Huawei.

    More than three years ago, Mr Zeng's contract was terminated by Huawei weeks before he would become eligible to be a permanent employee.

    His overtime, annual leave and year-end bonus were not paid in the severance package he received, so he decided to sue Huawei.

    Court documents viewed by the ABC showed the court ruled Huawei had to pay Mr Zeng 15,000 yuan ($3,000) for some of his overtime. Huawei unsuccessfully appealed against the verdict.

    Eighteen months later, Mr Zeng said he was surrounded by two Chinese police officers from Shenzhen while he was on holiday in Thailand, having dinner with his father.

    He was wanted on suspicion of violating trade secrets, and was then extradited to China and arrested for 90 days, without being able to have a lawyer.

    Mr Zeng said he refused to bow to pressures from the police, and his charge changed from violating trade secrets to fraud, before he was released on bail in March 2019.

    He tried to seek help from media outlets in China to tell his story, but he was told many times it was not possible to publish "a negative story" about Huawei.

    Mr Zeng is now living in his hometown Chongqing, while waiting for the result of his lawsuit with Huawei.

    He said many people in Shenzhen believe the 996 culture has become a systematic issue violating workers' rights, but the "rocket-high prices of properties" and "peer pressure" in the city left them without a choice.

    "It would be a blessing if we could go home at 9:00pm, which we rarely could."

    The ABC has approached Huawei and the Shenzhen Government for comment.

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