What is the ‘996’ working week system?

Chinese media hotly debates 12-hour six-day working week after Alibaba founder calls it a ‘blessing’

(Image credit: China Photos/Getty Images)

One of China’s most successful businessmen has come out in support of a 12-hour six-day working week, sparking huge debate over whether longer hours should be encouraged to help boost the country’s flagging economy.

Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of online shopping giant Alibaba, has called the ‘996 system’ a “blessing”, arguing that without it China’s economy was “very likely to lose vitality and impetus”.

The number refers to working from 9am to 9pm six days a week and is said to be common among the country’s big technology companies and start-ups.

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Ma’s stance has been backed by fellow tech entrepreneur Richard Liu, the boss of ecommerce giant JD.com, who claims years of rapid growth in China had boosted the number of “slackers”.

Between the late 1970s and mid-2000s the country enjoyed economic growth averaging 10% a year, but this has since slowed to nearer 6%. Last year it was overtaken by India as the world’s fastest growing economy.

“The long hours at Chinese tech firms is a relatively new development as China’s tech industry has expanded and startups modelled themselves more after those in Silicon Valley,” reports The Guardian, “but as China’s economy has slowed and bubbles have emerged in the tech sector, more employees are starting to reconsider the merits of working long hours”.

The BBC says the call for longer working hours to boost the faltering economy is “being hotly debated in the Chinese media”, with CNN Business reporting that state news outlets have slammed those companies that make staff put in long hours at the office.

In China, the law limits work to 44 hours a week and requires overtime pay for anything above that, “but many aren’t following the rules, and a rare online movement has put a spotlight on extended work hours in China’s booming tech sector”, says Tech Crunch.

In late March, a group of developers started a project called 996.icu – a reference to a comment by a programmer that working such a schedule could land an employee in the intensive care unit.

The Guardian says “the discussion gained momentum, as users added to a blacklist of more than 150 companies which push their staff to work excessive hours, posting evidence of unpaid, often compulsory or heavily encouraged overtime” and a project “that began as a joke among tired Chinese developers has turned into a nationwide debate about work culture and a rare protest against practices at some of the country’s largest companies”.

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