Microsoft Workers Join China’s Debate Over Grueling Workweek

April 23, 2019 Updated: April 23, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO—Tech workers in China protesting a corporate culture of grueling work schedules are getting some support from their U.S. peers at Microsoft.

A fast-growing campaign started by Chinese software developers on the code-sharing platform GitHub has contributed to a public debate over work-life balance in China’s tech industry.

It’s known as 996.ICU, referring to expectations that young people work 12-hour days, six days a week if they want financial success—and the idea that following such an illegal workweek can land them in an intensive care unit.

A group of tech workers at Microsoft, which owns GitHub, distributed an open letter on April 22 that urges the company to protect the widely shared GitHub page from censorship.

It follows reports that some Chinese domestic web browsers have restricted access to the page.

Some China observers believe the tech workers’ complaints could fuel other protests.

“I call it coding peasants uprising,” Wen Zhao, a Canada-based commentator, said in a YouTube video published on April 5 analyzing the recent online protests.

Wen added that the 996.icu campaign may influence other Chinese to stand up for their rights; tech engineers have relatively high salaries in China, while lower-income Chinese have, by comparison, more grievances.

In China, tech engineers and developers are calling themselves “coding peasants” or “IT farmers” because of the harsh working conditions.

Some Chinese tech engineers compiled a “blacklist” of 45 companies that have a “996” or longer work schedule on GitHub.

At Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunication equipment manufacturer, employees said their working hours were from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week, since at least August 2010.

JD.com, the e-commerce giant, has a “995” work schedule. The company said in a statement that it doesn’t require employees to work 995 or 996, but online, netizens who said they worked for the company explained that they would be laid off if they didn’t match the unwritten work expectations.

At tech giant Alibaba, working hours have been “996” since June 2018. And at Ant Financial, an Alibaba subsidiary and the world’s most valuable digital payment company, engineers have the same intense work hours as at Huawei.

Recent remarks by Alibaba’s head, Jack Ma, that young people should be prepared to work 12-hour days, six days a week have prompted a public debate over work-life balance in the country.

Jack Ma is one of China’s richest men and his comments brought both condemnation and support as China’s maturing economy enters a period of slower growth—and young people look to escape the drudgery their parents often had to endure.

Epoch Times reporter Nicole Hao contributed to this report.

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