The inhuman ‘996’ work culture of China

Karl Marx would have been turning in his grave to read the AP report from Miami dated November 15, 2023, that China leads the list of labour abusers, akin to slavery, as found on board fishing vessels worldwide. Should be unthinkable in communist China, as Marx had dreamt of a communist society where labour would be free from exploitation.

The research, carried out by Washington-based non-profit organization Financial Transparency Coalition that tracks illicit money flows, has detected hazardous, forced working conditions sometimes akin to slavery, on nearly 500 industrial fishing vessels around the world. A quarter of these vessels, suspected to be abusing workers, were flying the flag of the People’s Republic of China.

The Chinese distant water fleets dominate fishing in the high seas, says the report. These are traditionally lawless areas beyond the jurisdiction of any single country. Force labour in the seafood industry does not catch the public attention as it is rarely seen, but it is a “widespread human rights crisis,” says the report. The International Labour Organization says fishers face threats of violence, debt bondage, excessive overtime and other conditions of forced labour.

The report has identified two Chinese companies —ZheJiang Hairong Ocean Fisheries and Pingtan Marine Enterprises — as the worst offenders in terms of abuse of labour on board fishing vessels. The two Chinese companies, with 10 and seven vessels respectively, have been accused of human rights violations. In 2022, the company Pingtan was sanctioned by the Joe Biden administration in the U.S. over allegations of illegal fishing and labour abuse and subsequently its shares were delisted from the New York Stock Exchange. The seafood industry had hitherto escaped the scrutiny on abuse of labour by the Financial Action Task Force set up by the G-7 wealthiest democracies because of the lack of tools to regulate what takes place hundreds of miles away from land.

This is a sad commentary for the ruling Communist Party of China which swears by communism. Unfortunately, in China such abuse of labour is not confined to what happens in the high seas, far from the long arms of law. Such abuse of labour happens all over the Chinese mainland, right under the nose of the CPC leaders. The infamous labour practice dubbed as ‘996’ is pursued widely by entrepreneurs in China, with the government turning a blind eye.

Under the ‘996’ system, factory workers in China have to work 12 hours a day, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., for six days in a week; without overtime pay or subsidies. Under labour laws in China, workers are supposed to toil for eight hours in a day or 40 hours a week, with the provision of 36 hours of overtime in a month. According to reports from Beijing, the average Chinese worker would like to work eight hours a day for five days a week and have more time for leisure.

In recent years, the deaths of several workers have been linked to such an inhuman schedule of work as the ‘996’ system; particularly in the tech industry and in sectors like logistics. Workers have no time for rest, nor to socialize. Programmers and start-up workers have died unexpectedly due to overwork and exhaustion. Workers in China have dubbed the ‘996’ work culture as ‘996 ICU.’ It is a grim joke between workers in the tech industry that the ‘996’ work culture would send one soon to the intensive care unit of the hospital.

A questionnaire investigation conducted by Atlantis Press found that 76 percent of the respondents said the ‘996’ was breaking their lives and was a severe problem. Almost 86 percent of the respondents did not like the ‘996’ work system, they all thought they were being exploited of their rights; but they did not know how to resist the practice.

Most of the people interviewed were under great stress. Only some young people thought the ‘996’ work culture was okay. With growing age, the degree of stress increased. Some people said they were too tired to do anything else after going home from work. The work efficiency too decreased with increased hours of work. Out of the 50 people interviewed, 38 found the ‘996’ culture stressful and two found it to be insupportable, while only 10 people found it to be reasonable.

Fierce social competition among companies is said to be one of the reasons why companies exploit their workers in China. In the peculiar business environment of China, companies emulate the practices of their competitors to stay competitive, says a study by Duke Corporate Education, a part of Duke University. 

Insufficient protection of the existing legislative system and lax supervision of the law enforcement agencies are the reasons why the right to rest is not protected in China, says the Atlantis Press study. It is necessary to carry out institutional reforms like perfecting the working hour system, stricter implementation of overtime rules and raising the cost of illegal practices by employing units. The legal system in China is imperfect; the labour laws have been in force since 1994 but have not been improved upon to adapt to today’s society. Ironically, in a purportedly communist country workers are weak and lack awareness on how to safeguard their rights and interests by legal means.

Founder of Alibaba Jack Ma, reputed to be the richest man in China, has stirred a hornet’s nest by his vocal support of the gruelling ‘996’ work schedule. China is home to some of the largest internet companies in the world like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent. The pace of their growth has made some software developers and tech entrepreneurs very rich. But the relentless nature of the work culture is now taking a toll of tech workers powering the sector.

Deaths of workers due to excessively long work hours have led to court cases in China and verdicts have gone against companies indulging in such practices. A man named Zhang had been hired by a courier company under the ‘996’ work schedule. Zhang refused to work the illegal hours of overtime and was fired. An arbitration panel ordered the employer to pay Zhang a compensation of 8,000 yuan, equivalent to a month’s salary. The high court upheld the decision of the arbitration panel, saying Zhang had been fired illegally and the work policies of the government were against the law.

Dissatisfaction with long work hours became manifest when a young woman dropped dead, after working a series of excessively long shifts for a Chinese e-commerce start-up. Employees of the firm complained that they were made to work for 300 hours a month, far surpassing the legal limits. A service company and a media company had to pay compensation to the relatives when a worker named Li, hired by the service company and sent to the media company to work, collapsed in the bathroom of the office and died after a 12-hour overnight shift.

The secret of the economic success of China in the past few decades lies in this ruthless exploitation of the common Chinese worker that helps entrepreneurs in China to undercut competition from other countries by lowering labour cost. But this amounts to unfair trade practice, too, as companies in other countries, be they in the USA, West Europe or India, have to abide by labour laws. They find it difficult to compete with the lower costs of Chinese labour. Indian – American Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswami in the U.S. presidential election due in 2024 has fired a warning shot to China by promising that he will declare “economic independence from Beijing” if he is elected as President of the United States. “Here’s why we can’t get tough with China. It’s because we depend on them for our modern way of life. We have to declare economic independence from our enemy. That’s the Declaration of Independence that I will sign as the next President,” Ramaswami said in a debate on November 9, 2023.  “My message to Xi Jinping is this: U.S. business won’t expand into the Chinese market unless you play by the same set of rules.”

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