China’s Supreme Court Says Overtime Culture Is Illegal For 996

The excessive working hours of Chinese tech companies were once seen as the secret to their success, endorsed by luminaries like Alibaba founder Jack Ma. Now, the country’s authorities are sending companies a strong warning to stop this practice.

The Supreme Court of China, the Supreme Court and the country’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security jointly a memo yesterday (August 26) including 10 court rulings on labor disputes over overtime and associated compensation. In one case, the court said a delivery man, who was forced to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week, a schedule commonly known as “996” in China, was fired after refusing to work such long hours. The court ruled that the company in question must compensate the employee 8,000 yuan ($1,233) for illegally terminating his contract with them, saying that the 996 work schedule “seriously violated the maximum overtime hours regulated by Chinese law and therefore should be viewed as invalid.”

Chinese labor law stipulates that normal working hours should not exceed eight hours per day. If employers can reach an agreement with employees, employees are allowed to work up to three additional hours in one day, while total overtime must not exceed 36 hours per month. But in the tech sector, where the 996 schedule is rampant, many employees have worked much longer, and dissatisfaction with the practice is on the rise.

In one case, an employee of Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo collapsed after working until midnight, leading to public condemnation of the grueling work hours of tech companies. Some techies have also set up a project on GitHub to expose companies abusing the 996 practice.

In another case cited in the memo, the court targeted an undisclosed technology company. It said that despite the company pressuring the employee to sign a contract in which the employee volunteered to “work hard” and thus give up his overtime allowance, the company owed the employee an overtime allowance. according to labor law. “There’s nothing wrong with hard work, but it shouldn’t become a shield for companies to evade their legal responsibilities,” read the memo.

“While there have been positive signs this year, when some internet companies announced they had canceled the ‘big week/little week’ practice, many of them still haven’t gone back to a standardized state… the Department of Labor has taught a lesson to companies that still have a 996 scheme,” read an opinion piece today of state media the Beijing Youth Daily.

Chinese tech giants, including TikTok owner ByteDance, have slashed their grueling work hours in recent months, including big week/small week policies that require employees to alternate five-day work weeks and six-day work weeks.

Commentators on Chinese social media platform Weibo have questioned whether the court’s announcement would lead to significant changes. “Although now it is emphasized that 996 is illegal, but what can we ordinary workers do? Can we really sue the employer at the risk of never finding a job in the same industry again?’ wrote one user.