Graphic: Collective Action in Tech

A crowdsourced spreadsheet is the latest tool in Chinese tech worker organizing

Spreading information on working conditions is just the start of this grassroots project

Originally published in Collective Action in Tech. Republished with permission.

This week, thousands of Chinese tech workers are sharing information about their working schedules in an online spreadsheet. Their goal is to inform each other and new employees about overtime practices at different companies. 

This initiative for work-schedule transparency, titled Working Time, has gone viral. As of Friday—just three days after the project launched—the spreadsheet has already had millions of views and over 6000 entries. The creators also set up group chats on the Tencent-owned messaging platform, QQ, to invite discussion about the project—over 10000 people have joined as participants.

This initiative comes after the explosive 996.ICU campaign which took place in 2019 where hundreds of thousands of tech workers in the country participated in an online effort to demand the end of the 72-hour work week—9am to 9pm, 6 days a week.

This year, multiple tech companies—with encouragement from the government—have ended overtime work practices that forced employees to work on Saturdays (or in some cases, alternating Saturdays). This has effectively ended 996, which was illegal to begin with. While an improvement, the data collected from this online spreadsheet shows that most tech workers still work long hours, either “1095” or “11105” (10am to 9pm or 11am to 10pm, 5 days a week). The spreadsheet also shows a non-negligible number of workers still working 6 days week.

Like the 996.ICU campaign, the creators of this spreadsheet are using GitHub to circulate and share info about the project. The first commit was made on Tuesday, October 12th. Only a few days later, the repo has been starred over 9500 times.

As part of the project, the four creators—all recent grads who are looking for work in the tech industry—published a post on Zhihu (a quora-like forum) to share a bit about why they started this project and the impact they hope it will have. 

Below is a translation of the post. (link to original post)

As of 10/12/2021 7pm, the “company working schedule spreadsheet” was viewed over one hundred thousand times, the corresponding “company working schedule collection form” was viewed over four hundred thousand times. There are currently 1173 entries, with thousands of concurrent viewers. Without a doubt, our project has gone viral. But thinking back to three days ago, you may be wondering why we put this together in the first place.

Let me first introduce ourselves. We are four people, born between 1996 and 2001. We have all interned at internet companies and are currently in the fall recruitment cycle. Our education levels vary from undergrad to grad. We’ve all received letters of intent from various companies and are in the position of choosing between offers.

For certain reasons, the practice of working overtime in China is rampant and completely unregulated, especially at internet companies. Companies tout flexible working hours, but in reality you only have flexibility between “1095” and “11105”, either way you’re working a minimum of 10 hours. As a result, there’s very little transparency about working hours among internet firms. Yet as college fresh-grads, knowing the working hours is extremely important for choosing which offer to go with. That’s why we made this spreadsheet to share this information. 

While this project has gone viral, we’ve also encountered a few issues. Nevertheless, by this point, this project isn’t just about sharing information. We have a greater responsibility to society. We wish to push back against 996 and contribute to making 955 the new norm.

Is 996 completely senseless? No, 996 has its own reasons for being.

My country, as a developing nation, wants to overtake developed nations so that we can have better lives, salaries, technology, management, etc. Coming from behind, we could only count on 996 to catch up. In the past, I interned for a foreign telecommunications company. Without exaggerating, the productivity at this company was dismal. It took me a full two weeks to get ramped up at that internship. Huawei, on the other hand—according to our spreadsheet—isn’t quite a 996 company but certainly practices 1095. The number of hours employees work in Huawei has undoubtedly contributed to it’s rapid development. Today, the company that I interned at is no match for Huawei (a coworker at the company I interned at said so themselves, not my words). Today, Huawei is even in the smartphone, laptop, and cloud computing businesses.

However, as of 2021, China has become the world’s second largest economy and our GDP per Capita is over 10,000 USD. Can 996 continue to bring our country rapid growth? Only 955 can deliver high quality growth. GDP growth is no longer our only goal.

As post-95ers (I, myself, am born in 2000), do we really not accept 996 culture? Not necessarily. If Pinduoduo were to offer another 10 grand in salary, I wouldn’t mind going there to work 996 instead of working 1095 at Tencent. But I certainly wouldn’t enjoy working 996. I would do 996 today so that I wouldn’t have to do 996 in the future. 996 will turn workers into human robots and the only conclusion for human robots, once their batteries are drained, is to throw them out. 

There is only one particular situation where people feel fulfilled working 996, and that’s when someone is struggling for self-actualization. For example, over the past two days, we’ve created 6 iterations of the spreadsheet, created a backup on GitHub, designed the project logo, etc. I worked 996 to contribute to this project. But I’m happy about it. Watching the number of people browsing the spreadsheet shoot up, the number of entries grow from 600 to 1200, and countless people who have reached out to share their gratitude, I feel fulfilled. This is the highest level of the Maslow hierarchy of needs, and my greatest joy.

The current situation may not be sustainable. I don’t trust Tencent. Who knows, they may censor our spreadsheet at any time. Even then, the four of us will continue this project until we are unable to provide value to our fellow workers, that is if 955 becomes the norm, or if 996 becomes legalized.

We all know that 996 isn’t right, but it is here. Even the viral 996.ICU campaign didn’t seem to change things for the better. But we’re willing to spend our energy on this, even if there’s no hope. Those who can act should act. Those who can speak up, should speak up.