The grueling “996” work schedule, which stands for “9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week,” is a serious violation of Chinese labor laws, the country’s supreme court has declared in a warning to employers.
The Supreme People’s Court in China published a series of example judgments on labor practices on Thursday. In one case, a company was ordered to compensate a worker who was dismissed for refusing to comply with the “996” schedule.
Citing the labor law that caps overtime work at 36 hours per month, the court said the “996” requirement in the contract should be deemed void.
In another case, an unnamed tech company was ordered to pay an employee overtime wages even though the employee had pledged to give up overtime pay in an agreement to join the company’s “fighter’s program.”
Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei has in the past asked employees to sign the so-called “fighter’s agreement” in which workers renounce their rights to holidays and other benefits in service of the company’s growth.
“It’s nothing wrong to promote hard work, but it cannot become a shield for employers to evade their legal obligations,” the court said.
The cases were published to warn employers against illegal labor practices, since the disputes caused by overtime work could “undermine harmonious labor relations and social stability,” the court added.
But on the internet, the court statement only caused a wave of new complaints about existing “996” practices across different industries.
“Let’s talk about it when it’s actually being enforced,” said one of the top-voted comments on microblogging site Weibo.
“Does it apply to state-owned companies?” another person commented.
The 996 work culture has gained prevalence in China as companies push their employees to work extra hours to get ahead in the cut-throat competition.
Tech workers organized online protests against 996 work in 2019, but the absence of independent labor unions and lax enforcement of labor laws have enabled the practice to persist. Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma famously called the work schedule a “blessing” that would allow young people to succeed.
Labor practices at tech companies came under renewed public scrutiny this year. An employee at e-commerce firm Pinduoduo died suddenly after finishing work past midnight. One food delivery worker set himself on fire to demand unpaid wages.
Regulators have also launched a broader crackdown on the tech industry’s anti-trust behaviors and data practices, prompting tech giants to pledge more stringent compliance with authorities’ demands.
Some companies, including short-video app owners ByteDance and Kuaishou, recently said they would end the so-called “big-small week” policy, which requires workers to alternate five-day work weeks and six-day work weeks.
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.