996.ICU and the rewards of hard work

April 27, 2019 (1158 words) :: Some Chinese tech workers are being asked to work 9am-9pm, 6 days a week. Will this serve as a wake-up call for Silicon Valley to start working harder?
Tags: working-in-tech, jason-calacanis

This post is day 117 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

If you haven’t already heard about the “996” movement in China, here’s the gist of it: similar to how the games development industry has an overreliance on ‘crunch’ as a way to meet deadlines by overworking employees, there’s a trend within the Chinese tech industry of employers expecting workers to do 9am-9pm hours, 6 days a week. This isn’t really something permitted by law, but seems to happen anyway.

This issue was brought to international attention just over a month ago, when a GitHub repository named 996.ICU (the suffix being short for “intensive care unit”), created by workers who were fed up with the practice, started trending. And just last week, employees at GitHub and Microsoft (which owns GitHub) penned an open letter in support of the 996.ICU project, expressing solidarity with the workers and urging GitHub to not take down the repository. (GitHub has previously taken down a repository that documented the names of people who worked for ICE, and there are fears that the Chinese government might ask GitHub to do something similar in order to stifle dissent).

The supportive reaction from workers in the tech industry the world is heartening, and I’m happy to have signed on to the open letter. What’s less heartening - if wholly expected - was the response from individuals in the tech industry whose interests are more aligned with capital. Jack Ma (CEO of Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba) responded by basically saying that overworking is good, actually:

Ma said that he did not intend to defend the practice of working long hours, but wanted to “pay tribute” to employees who did. “The real 996 is not simply overtime work,” he said, adding that everyone has the right to choose their own lifestyle but those who work shorter hours “won’t taste the happiness and rewards of hard work.”

Man who benefits from his employees’ hard work tries to sell them on the spiritual and material benefits of working hard: what else is new? It should go without saying that unless you’re near the top of the company’s hierarchy, your “rewards” for hard work are overwhelmingly going to go to others - the CEO, high-level exes, institutional shareholders, etc. The idea that working hard comes with “happiness and rewards” is a false promise dangled in front of employees who, one hopes, won’t notice just how little “reward” they’ll actually get.

Here’s a response (via Twitter) to Jack Ma’s comments from an almost comically oblivious Silicon Valley investor, Jason Calacanis:

#Founders: We’re up against #JackMa (& #China) enforcing a 72-hour work-week #996 = 6 days a week, 9am to 9pm The same exact work ethic that built America! You can get on your twitter pedestal & attack Ma or you can make a plan to win. The harsh truth is America is in a war with people who want it more than Americans do. We can choose to become a retirement community like Europe, with negative growth, or we can step up & compete. What’s at stake isn’t just money, it’s democracy vs. communism.

There are so many bizarre assumptions to unpack here: the nationalistic notion that it’s Silicon Valley (the assumed audience for his tweet) versus China, as if it were a basketball game. The idea that such a work ethic is what built America (which, of course, is assumed to be great the way it is). The insult aimed at Europe for being a “retirement community” (I assume that means: being able to live decent and less precarious lives that go beyond building some dumb SaaS product aimed at making rich investor assholes even richer). The “democracy vs. communism” dichotomy (I don’t even know where to start with that).

This line of reasoning (praising the tendency toward overworking in some Chinese tech companies, and bemoaning the fact that Americans - especially older ones - are less inclined to fall for it) is not exactly new, either. As Buzzfeed reporter Caroline O’Donovan writes in an article on the 996 movement:

In a Financial Times op-ed last year, Sequoia Capital partner Michael Moritz wrote: “In China … it is quite usual for the management of 10 and 15-year-old companies to have working dinners followed by two or three meetings. If a Chinese company schedules tasks for the weekend, nobody complains about missing a Little League game or skipping a basketball outing with friends. Little wonder it is a common sight at a Chinese company to see many people with their heads resting on their desks taking a nap in the early afternoon.” This cultural standard, Moritz predicted, will soon make “the habits of western companies will start to seem antique.”

It is, of course, perfectly rational for those who hold substantial shares in tech companies to try to get employees to work harder. It is within the class interests of these investors and executives to encourage their workers to work harder and longer hours. In fact, in their ideal scenario, workers would do so voluntarily, either because they believe it will be good for themselves (“happiness and rewards”), or because of a nationalist drive to defeat the enemy. Consent goes down more smoothly than coercion, and it sounds better to say “hard work is good for you” or “you need to work hard to beat the enemy” than to reveal the truth, which is that overworking is instigated in the service of higher profits, and there’s only a small chance that it will substantially redound to the benefit of the worker.

Pitting American and Chinese workers against each other only benefits capital, and national affiliation offers little consolation in that regard (Chinese billionaires or American billionaires, they’re all still billionaires). There is no glory to be found in working yourself to death because your boss is hoping to retire by the age of 35 and wants your help in making that happen.

Don’t let your boss convince you to surrender more and more of your life to your company under the guise of ‘personal advancement’ or ‘patriotic duty’. At the end of the day, you’re really just a pawn in someone else’s game - a game you don’t need to be playing.

DHH, creator of Ruby on Rails and co-founder of software development firm 37signals (now Basecamp), had a good take on Jason Calacanis’ perspective which flat-out rejects the call to work harder. As a founder, DHH is unusual for having consistently had a critical perspective on the glorification of overwork in the tech industry, and I highly recommend following him for thoughtful takes on startup culture from a European perspective. His piece ends like this:

The ideological underpinnings of capitalism are already in an advanced state of ethical decay. You don’t save the good parts of said capitalism by doubling down on the worst, most exploitive parts. Racing to the bottom just gets you there faster.

« See the full list of fragments