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996 debate reignited after videos glorifying overwork surface

Published Jun 13th, 2024 8:00AM EDT
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By Amanda Kavanagh

A top public relations executive for Baidu, China’s dominant search engine, has reportedly departed the company following a series of videos that appeared to glorify the punishing ‘996’ work schedule.

Qu Jing, who headed up communications at the tech giant, implied that she had no concern for the wellbeing of employees in videos posted to Douyin, a video platform similar to TikTok.  

“I’m not their mom,” she said, adding that she only cared about results and that her relationship with subordinates was a purely “employer-employee” transaction.

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That doesn’t sound too outrageous, however, Jing allegedly also threatened to ruin the careers of staff members who wrote hundreds of letters to the office complaining about her, by making sure they were unable to obtain employment elsewhere. 

Additionally, she criticized a worker who declined to go on a 50-day work trip during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when China tightly curtailed travel and demanded that visitors stay in quarantine for weeks.

“Why should I take into consideration my employee’s family? I’m not her mother-in-law,” Jing is reported as saying, adding that employees would not be eligible for pay increases or job promotions, if they declined to participate on such business trips.

These videos have since been deleted, and the executive reportedly apologized “sincerely to all netizens” on her private WeChat, clarifying that she hadn’t gotten Baidu’s approval before sharing the videos.

996 culture

This uncompromising stance reignited the debate around the 996 work culture that has been hotly debated in China’s tech scene in recent years. A 996 schedule refers to the practice of employees working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. 

The controversial schedule first drew widespread scrutiny in 2019 after gaining prevalence at some of China’s biggest tech firms.

That year, Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma faced criticism for endorsing the 12-hour day, 6-day work week. Ma argued that those who truly enjoyed their work would not mind the 996 grind. 

His comments sparked an immediate backlash from critics who described the schedule as corporate exploitation and detrimental to work-life balance.

Then in December 2020, a 23-year-old employee for e-commerce platform Pinduoduo collapsed and passed away while making their way home after midnight. Following the incident, Chinese officials declared they were looking into Pinduoduo’s working conditions.

Less than two weeks later, an engineer with the last name Tan, who had been employed by the company for roughly six months, took a leave of absence from work and went back to his hometown, where he died by suicide. The following day, another employee said he had been fired after criticizing Pinduoduo’s work culture, according to news reports

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China’s highest court has since weighed in, describing overwork practices like 996 as a violation of the country’s labor laws. 

In an August 2021 statement issued with the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the Supreme People’s Court wrote, “Recently, extreme overtime work in some industries has received widespread attention.” It went on to say that workers deserve rights for “rest and vacation,” adding that “adhering to the national working hour system is the legal obligation of employers.” 

Spotting toxic workplaces

Since these reports emerged, and sadly continue to emerge, China’s tech giants and their international counterparts have struggled to shake their reputations for fostering toxic corporate cultures. 

When job hunting, always look for references to work-life balance, and company benefits regarding flexibility, asynchronous hours, vacation days and PTO. Also make contact with someone who works there, either through your alumni network or social media, to get the real 411.

Lastly, bookmark AI tools to help you, like Tula. This scans job specs for you, and reports back on the probability of a high work-life balance in that role, and at that organization. By doing some research, you can make an informed decision to help you avoid a toxic workplace.

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