China’s Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MoHRSS) issued a joint statement on August 26, specifying that the “996” work schedule is illegal, as reported by Caixin on August 27. The 996 work culture entails working from 9am to 9pm for six days a week. The joint statement listed ten cases of common labor disputes and their rulings to serve as reference for local labor dispute arbitration institutes and courts. One of the cases ruled that an employer violated the laws by terminating the labor contract with an employee who refused to comply with the mandatory 996 work schedule written in the contract. The ruling stands as such an overtime working arrangement severely violates the Labor Law on the extension of the maximum working hours, which is invalid according to the Labor Contract Law.
China’s Labor Law stipulates that workers work no more than eight hours a day and no more than 44 hours a week on average. If employers intend to extend working hours of an employee due to operational needs or special reasons, the maximum extension should not exceed over three hours per day, with a monthly cap at 36 hours. Employers shall compensate overtime work accordingly. Terms in labor contracts that violate this law are deemed invalid. However, despite those clear rules on work hours in the Labor Law, many domestic companies still adopt a 996 work schedule, meaning working 72 hours per week, 28 hours more than the legal provision a week. Besides, those firms have been normalizing and even glorifying overtime culture in the absence of explicit admonishment from regulatory and legal bodies.
As a common practice in many technology companies in China, especially in start-ups, the 996 working arrangement has led to grievances among China’s workforce in the technology industry and even caused fatalities. Notably, in December 2020, a 22-year-old female employee at e-commerce giant Pinduoduo [PDD:US] died after working throughout the night, sparking national outcry. Following national discussion, People’s Daily issued an opinion essay in April explicitly criticizing the enforcement of 996 and calling for goal-oriented and efficiency-oriented corporate governance and promote civilized, efficient and humane working arrangement. The essay revealed the first official stance on the 996 culture prior to the release of MoHRSS and Supreme Court’s joint statement. In addition to specifying corporate violations this time, MoHRSS and Supreme Court also intend to encourage employees to proactively protect their legal rights.