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时间:2022-04-25 来源: 作者:Zou Shuo

China Daily: Overtime triggers heated discussion after workers' deaths

IT employees lured by high salaries struggle to strike work-life balance

Debate about working overtime in China's burgeoning information technology sector has resurfaced after the deaths of two staff members at major internet companies.

One employee, who died during the Spring Festival holiday, worked for the short-video platform Bilibili, while the other, who died on Feb 23, was employed by ByteDance, the parent company of the short-video app TikTok, known in China as Douyin.

Both workers, who were in their 20s, had heart attacks, which may have been caused by working overtime.

The late Bilibili employee, a 25-year-old content moderator, died on Feb 4 while working overtime during the Lunar New Year break, according to a statement from the company.

It denied that the employee's death was related to working overtime, as he had worked normal hours before his death. However, the company said it would recruit an additional 1,000 content reviewers this year to spread the workload.

The ByteDance employee, 28, collapsed after a workout session at a company gym at about 7 pm on Feb 21, according to media reports citing internal company memos. He died 41 hours after being sent to a hospital. The company has not given any further information on the worker's death.

Both cases have led to heated discussions about the pressures that technology workers in China face and also on their 996 work schedule (9 am to 9 pm, six days a week).

The hashtag "ByteDance has confirmed the death of 28-year-old employee" has been viewed more than 680 million times on Sina Weibo, while different hashtags on the death of the Bilibili employee have also been viewed hundreds of millions of times.

Huang Hao, 30, who works for an internet startup in Beijing, said his company requires all employees to work at least 11 hours per day.

The bosses are entrepreneurs who believe in hard work and in treating the company as their home. They also encourage their employees to hold such beliefs, Huang said.

In group chats, his team leader publishes a list of the number of working hours for each employee, and Huang said he is often at the bottom of the list because he does not want to put in extra hours.

He said that although there is no written rule about working extra hours, employees know that the list plays an important role in obtaining salary rises and promotion opportunities.

Huang added that many of his colleagues either leave the office to eat dinner, or stay there and play with their phones to add extra work hours before clocking out.

There is no extra pay for working late, apart from a meal subsidy of 30 yuan ($4.70) and a free taxi ride home, he added.

"I do not like this kind of ineffective extra working. I will work late if I actually have more work to do, otherwise I much prefer going home and enjoying my life," he said.

Huang said he has occasionally worked until 1 am or 2 am when he has been busy completing a large project, but in most cases, he leaves work at about 7 pm.

Lin Li, 33, worked for technology giant Huawei in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, from 2011 to 2018 and then for three smaller tech companies. She said working overtime is common practice at IT businesses.

People know that these companies offer high salaries and have demanding work targets, so they are prepared to work additional hours when hired, she said.

Lin said the difference between Huawei and smaller companies is that employees are paid for working extra hours at Huawei, but there are no additional payments at smaller enterprises, which usually want to take advantage of employees by asking them to do more without financial reward.

To complete a project on time, Lin worked for several days until as late as 3 am and started her duties at 8:30 am. But she said she had few complaints, as it was a challenging task and she received extra pay and a large bonus for her efforts.

She said smaller companies want to learn from Huawei about the overtime work culture, but they do not have so much work to do and lack the finances to compensate their employees.

Hard work rewarded

Lin, who was born in a small village in Heilongjiang province, said her family's finances were below the local average, but in Shenzhen she has bought an apartment and a car thanks to the high salary she earns at Huawei.

"It has been hard work, but this work has paid off," she said.

Lin added that she is grateful to the company for not only improving her finances, but also for broadening her horizons and sharpening her professional skills.

With the prospects of high salaries and quick promotion opportunities, jobs at technology companies are in high demand among college graduates.

According to a survey of more than 5,000 college students this month by China Youth Daily, the IT industry ranked top for the best development prospects, according to 67 percent of the respondents, followed by the culture, sports and entertainment industries (44 percent), education (40 percent) and health and medicine (18 percent).

The National Bureau of Statistics said that in 2020, the IT industry continued to rank top for average annual salaries for employees in urban areas.

The average annual salary at publicly owned IT companies reached 177,544 yuan, while at privately operated enterprises it was 101,281 yuan, with the figures at the top of a list of 18 major industries in urban areas, the bureau said. Agriculture, forestry, husbandry and fishing had the lowest salaries-less than 50,000 yuan in the public sector and below 40,000 yuan in the private sector.

As Chinese technology enterprises rose to global prominence, employees with company shares paying annual dividends achieved their first particularly large sums, or "pots of gold"-sometimes as much as hundreds of thousands or even a million or more yuan for individual staff members. In many cases these payouts eclipsed annual salaries.

Guan Xiaoyu, lecturer at the School of Government at Beijing Normal University, said the success and rapid expansion of Chinese tech companies in the past 20 or so years is based on hardworking employees willing to put in extra hours in exchange for a decent salary and career development.

Companies whose employees sacrificed their personal life by working as hard as they could to deliver projects regardless of obstacles, outperformed competitors, Guan said.

Default setting

However, Guan added that the enthusiasm for and popularity of tech companies among job applicants has prompted some entrepreneurs to treat the 996 work schedule as a default setting or tacit requirement for their businesses.

In 2019, Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma endorsed the 996 work culture, describing it as a blessing for people employed at leading technology companies.

The same year, Zhu Ning, founder and CEO of e-commerce business Youzan, which is based in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, called on all employees to embrace this work culture after it was announced that it would be made company policy.

Zhu said in a WeChat post that the human resources department at Youzan would tell job applicants that working for the company means huge pressure, and that many employees have become fully accustomed to working extra hours.

Tang Daisheng, professor at the School of Economics and Management at Beijing Jiaotong University, said that while most companies consider the 996 work schedule as a "hidden rule", some have made it a policy, which clearly violates the Labor Law and puts employees at fault for non-compliance.

He said that entrepreneurs can work as much as they want and consider 996 a blessing, but they should not hold their employees to the same standard.

Tang added that while well-known IT companies offer high-paid jobs to employees, their well-educated and highly-skilled workers are also a blessing to such enterprises, whose development relies on innovative and efficient staff members.

"It is a mutually beneficial relationship. The companies should not make employees feel indebted to them or use ways to brainwash them into believing that working additional hours is a blessing," he said.

Moreover, working overtime for a long period increases the risk of developing psychological and physical problems such as depression, sleeping disorders and strokes, Tang said, adding that social and economic development is also affected in the long term.

In Japan, for example, after the country experienced rapid development, it faced obstacles to economic growth, such as psychological problems and an unwillingness among people to marry and have children, due to social issues resulting from a long-term culture of overworking.

Court regulation

In August, the Supreme People's Court ruled that the 996 overtime practice was illegal. The top court and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security published guidelines for and examples of overtime work.

In Beijing, a campaign running from March 15 to May 15 is aimed at regulating overtime in key industries and enterprises, including internet companies, technology-intensive enterprises driven by research and development, and labor-intensive manufacturers and service providers. The campaign also seeks to protect workers' rights and interests and to build harmonious labor relations.

In a notice issued on March 15, the Beijing Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau said that regulation focuses on how employers schedule their work hours, breaks and vacation days, and also on special working schedules, overtime and compensation-related issues.

The notice said employers should ensure their workers have at least one day off each week and that compensation is offered for working overtime, adding that violators would face administrative punishment.

Yao Junchang, co-founder of the Beijing Weiheng Law Office, said that while laws in China are "quite protective" of workers' rights, in practice such legislation is rarely strictly enforced.

He said that when cases involving labor issues are filed, employers are often asked by law enforcement authorities to compensate employees for working overtime, or are fined a small amount, both of which are insufficient deterrents to avoid repeated transgressions.

Tang, from Beijing Jiaotong University, said local governments are often reluctant to be tough with errant technology companies that provide a large number of jobs. For economic development, local authorities also want to keep these companies within their jurisdiction.

Not sustainable

Experts believe that in the long term, the 996 overtime culture at technology companies is not sustainable.

Guan, from Beijing Normal University, said competition among internet companies now and in the future hinges on their ability to achieve breakthroughs in new cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and metaverse-a virtual reality space in which users interact with a computer-generated environment and other users. The ability among companies to make breakthroughs relies more on original innovation, rather than working additional hours, Guan added.

When knowledge-intensive employees are overworked, they do not have any energy left to come up with new technologies, so such a culture stifles innovation, she said.

Tang said that after experiencing rapid development for a long period, growth momentum at Chinese technology companies has slowed, meaning that they will be less capable of affording high salaries for their large number of employees.

Many technology workers choose internet companies for their high salaries, rather than having a genuine interest in them, so when salaries are lower than expected, it is only natural for these employees to leave and find other work, he said.

"While Chinese are known for being hardworking-and some people might be less sensitive about working overtime-this does not mean that we don't know how to enjoy leisure time and find a work-life balance," Tang said.

Working hard is not contradictory to enjoying life, and people need to find a balance between work and leisure, he added.

Moreover, members of the younger generation born to more-affluent families are less inclined to work overtime, and many of them have chosen less-hectic occupations that promise a better balance between work and life, he said.

Tang added that the COVID-19 pandemic has also made people think about the importance of health and of finding a balance between work and life.