Australia – Former Huawei employees publicly condemn Shenzhen’s “996” work culture – Chinatown, Australia

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Shenzhen has always been called the "Silicon Valley of China", and this city is also the place where the "996" work culture prevails.

A wideshot of a man standing on his balcony at home.

Zeng Meng said that Huawei employees will be required to sign a "struggle agreement", indicating that they are working overtime voluntarily.




Key points:

  • Shenzhen became the first city in China to mandate paid leave for employees in "special industries"
  • These industries will now also be required to pay overtime or give additional annual leave
  • But experts worry that the new policy may not change the city’s overtime culture

Mr. Zeng is a power engineer. In 2012, he was hired by the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei as a product manager in the Shenzhen area. He had previously worked in several other technology companies in this city in Guangdong, known as the "Silicon Valley of China". .

This new job quickly occupied his personal life-he had no time to spend time with his family, leisure or even sleep.

He said he had lost interest in everything except work.

Mr. Zeng’s situation is not uncommon. The "996" work culture prevails in Shenzhen.Shenzhen is China's technology and innovation center, separated from Hong Kong by a river.

"There are no entertainment projects in life, you are basically at work, you will be in a very blind state," Mr. Zeng said in an interview with ABC.

"Often working overtime until 11 o'clock in the evening."

However, according to regulations approved in October, Shenzhen became the first city in China to require workers in “special industries” to take paid leave on January 10, so that “people with a huge amount of mental and physical work can avoid overwork”.

Usually in China, employees who have worked for the same company for up to 10 years are entitled to 5 days of annual leave, but they also have 11 days of paid public holidays.

According to the new regulations, workers in non-designated industries who often work longer hours or occasionally need to work overtime will be eligible for additional annual leave.

In the month when the regulations were drafted, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on Shenzhen to create another miracle in a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. 40 years ago, Shenzhen was a small fishing village, after which the city became China's first special economic zone.

This topic has sparked heated debates on social media, and many employees of China's top technology companies have expressed different views on the new regulations and how it will affect the long and stressful working hours of employees.


A close-up of Alibaba Group co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma's face.
Jack Ma, the co-founder of Alibaba Group, once said that working for the company 12 hours a day is a kind of "blessing."
(Reuters: Valery Sharifulin/TASS)

The "996" work culture was originally proposed by some Chinese programmers in 2019. They often work overtime at the Shenzhen Technology Center, working 72 hours a week.

The term "996" quickly became popular after being supported by the bosses of technology giants including Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma, which triggered widespread discussions about the impact of this work culture on employee health and personal lives.

"Working 996, sick ICU" is an internet buzzword.

Zeng Meng said that every employee of Huawei is required to sign a "struggle agreement", stating that they "voluntarily accept overtime, do not overtime pay, and give up paid annual leave."

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) saw this "struggle agreement", and the Chinese media also reported on the agreement on a large scale.

"It has become a glamorous synonym for endless squeeze and exploitation," he said.

"Because everyone signs, you have that kind of herd mentality."

"If you don't sign, you can't do it with Huawei."

A man standing near a window at home
Mr. Zeng now lives in his hometown of Chongqing, waiting for the outcome of the lawsuit with Huawei.

As more and more companies in Shenzhen follow Huawei’s agreement, Mr. Zeng said that this has brought benefits to the company, but at the expense of employees’ personal lives.

“If you chat with colleagues, you will generally feel that you will be more grumpy,” Mr. Zeng said.

"Because you are in a hurry, someone around you keeps urging you, and you have to urge others."

Jimmy Jin, a former employee of a technology company in Shenzhen, told the ABC that many people do not want to challenge the system because they believe that their efforts will lead to better opportunities.

"Work has permeated every aspect of your life," said Ms. Jin, who is in her 20s.

"Life has become very boring, only work, and then you can only work when you go home at night."

"I even went to see a psychiatrist for a while. Taking medicine is to regulate emotional problems."

Why the New Deal may not change the overtime culture?

General cityscape of Shenzhen, including the 100-floor tower Kingkey.
Experts say that the 996 work culture violates China's "Labor Law" in many aspects, including the provision of extending working hours.
(Reuters: Bobby Yip)

Aiden Chau, a researcher at China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based publication that focuses on the trends of the Chinese labor force, told the ABC that Shenzhen has always been a testing ground for Chinese capitalist ideas, but now that new policies can It is too early to solve the problem of overwork.

Mr. Zhou said that the new regulations do not specify what these “special industries” are, so it may not apply to everyone in the city.

"At present, it is difficult to say whether the 996 work culture is related to this draft."

"[The rule has] ... a lot of room for maneuver."

Mr. Zhou said that the 996 work culture violated China's Labor Law in many aspects, including extended working hours, overtime pay, and fines for violations of regulations.

But because of the economic benefits of the system, Beijing chose to ignore it, he said.

"The minimum working hours under the 996 work system are [weekly] 72 hours. The standard working time in China is 40 hours [weekly]," he said.

"So it is basically equivalent to that Chinese skilled workers work for the boss who pursues the 996 work system for half a year each year."

"996" culture constitutes a systemic problem

A man using computer at home
Mr. Zeng said that some people work according to "996" because they think they must do so if they want to stay in the company.

Mr. Zeng does not believe that the problem of overwork can be solved.

He used his own personal experience to explain his reasons, including how China's media censorship helped cover up the problems of companies such as Huawei.

More than three years ago, Zeng Meng was fired by Huawei before the contract ended and he was disqualified as a full-time employee.

"My situation is not unique. Some colleagues I know were also kicked out of Huawei in this way," he said.

His overtime, annual leave, and year-end bonus were not included in the severance pay he received, so he decided to sue Huawei.

Court documents seen by ABC show that the court ruled that Huawei must pay Zeng Meng 1.5 yuan (about 3000 Australian dollars) for overtime.Huawei appealed the verdict, but failed.

18 months later, Mr. Zeng said that he was surrounded by three Chinese policemen from Shenzhen while on vacation in Thailand, while he was having dinner with his father.

He was wanted for alleged infringement of trade secrets, then he was extradited to China and arrested for 90 days. He was unable to hire a lawyer.

Zeng Meng said that he refused to succumb to police pressure, and before he was released on bail in March 2019, his allegations changed from infringement of trade secrets to fraud.

He tried to seek help from the Chinese media to tell his story, but he was repeatedly told that it was impossible to publish "negative reports" about Huawei.

Mr. Zeng now lives in his hometown of Chongqing, waiting for the outcome of the lawsuit with Huawei.

He said that many people in Shenzhen believe that the "996" culture has become a systemic problem that violates employees' rights, but Shenzhen's "soaring housing prices" and "peer pressure" leave them no choice.

"It would be ironic to say that someone in Huawei once asked the company to enforce 996," he said.

"It would be a blessing if we could go home at 9 o'clock in the evening, but we rarely go home."

ABC has contacted Huawei and the Shenzhen municipal government for comment.


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