The 996 controversy or China’s 72-hour work week

A few days ago, Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba and one of China’s richest people (also #21 richest person in the world according to Forbes) made waves when he openly supported the 996 working system. 996 means working from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week, and it’s common in China’s tech industry. Yes, you’re reading it right. That means working 72 hours per week. It’s important to note that this is not even legal in China as, according to the labour law, labourers shall work for no more than eight hours a day and no more than 44 hours a week on average. Also, any overtime should be paid, but guess what, in most cases it’s not (for office workers; factory workers just pack up and leave if they are not paid overtime, after causing a ruckus).

So what did Jack Ma say exactly? He called the 996 schedule “a huge blessing” and said workers should consider it an honour rather than a burden. And he is not the only filthy rich business owner who supports 996. Other enthusiasts include JD, the second biggest e-commerce site in China, and Huawei, the phone maker. Tencent was not mentioned in the article I read (in The Guardian) but I know people who work there and it’s more or less the same.

“The pride of working overtime”.


The term 996 is not new as it appeared a few years ago already, but it resurfaced these past weeks because at the end of March a group of software developers started a project in the code-sharing website GitHub and created a list of companies that demand unpaid overtime. Wouldn’t it be amazing if these companies started having problems finding new recruits?

Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve always been very opposed to the idea of working overtime when you are an employee, especially in those big, multibillion corporations. For me, working overtime means one of two things: You are either a lazy ass who cannot finish on time the work you should be able to complete in 8 hours; or you are dealing with more work that can be humanely done in 8 hours. If it’s the second, and you are playing along and staying in the office for longer than you should, then your company is taking advantage of you. There’s no other way to look at it. Of course, if you only work overtime some specific days because there is an important project or an emergency, then that’s fine. But working overtime every day? And without being paid? Even if you love what you do… what you’re basically doing is making your boss richer for free! And you are missing out in every other aspect of your life! Doesn’t it feel that, apart from selling your time very cheap, you’re also giving away your dignity?

“Thanks to your overtime work and sleepless nights I’m driving a Ferrari. That’s what you young people have to do, gain experience. I brought you some apples”. (That’s a hospital bed and a hospital pajamas, in case you were wondering).


In China there is also a third reason why you would stay in the office for longer, apart from the two that I mentioned before (being a slacker or having too much to do): it doesn’t look good to leave the office before your boss does. I hate this so much. I’ve seen it many times: people that have literally nothing to do, but stay past their hour playing games or shopping in the computer until the boss is ready to leave. But what’s the point of staying if you don’t have anything to do?

Being a good worker is not living in the office. Working smart and being productive in the 8 hours you have per day is what makes you good! And working regularly for long hours doesn’t make you better in any way; in fact, attempts to quantify the relationship between hours worked and productivity found that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours (quote from here). So, uh, this might seem counter intuitive, but… Jack Mas of the world, your businesses would perform better if your employees worked less hours, as their work would be of a better quality! This is very well explained in this fantastic article.

I guess I will never work for one of those huge fancy companies that expect people to put up with everything just for the “honour” of working there, but you know what? I’m totally fine with it. Work is important, but what’s the point of living to work?