For tech workers in China, a brutal work schedule of 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week (usually just called "996") is not only commonplace, it’s been hailed as “a huge blessing” by the likes of Alibaba’s eccentric and fantastically wealthy taskmaster, Jack Ma.
Workers themselves, as you might imagine, do not all share his enthusiasm.
Mirroring the push for more fairness and accountability at tech firms in the US, Chinese workers took to Github, the popular code repository website now owned by Microsoft, to start a blacklist of sorts. Huawei, Bytedance (makers of TikTok), and Ant Financial (associated with Alibiba) join 100+ other companies added to this crowdsourced blacklist of firms forcing unsustainable hours on their employees. The repo itself was given the name 996.icu—as named because of this demanding schedule’s likeliness to send exhausted coders to the hospital’s intensive care unit.
As a sign of wide support, 996.icu has been starred nearly 260,000 times since its creation, making it one of the most popular repositories in the site’s history. All this attention has also led to a crackdown of sorts, with several popular internet browsers restricting access to the 996.icu page in particular.
Microsoft and Github workers released an open letter on Monday, making plain their intention to “stand in solidarity with tech workers in China” and resist potential attempts by the Chinese government to pressure Microsoft into censoring 996.icu. “We must entertain the possibility that Microsoft and GitHub will be pressured to remove the repository,” the letter reads. “We encourage Microsoft and GitHub to keep the 996.ICU GitHub repository uncensored and available to everyone.”
The letter is reproduced below in full:
Tech workers in China started a GitHub repository titled 996.ICU, a reference to the gruelling and illegal working hours of many tech companies in China - from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. “By following the ‘996' work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (Intensive Care Unit),” says the 996.ICU GitHub project description. The project calls for Chinese tech companies to obey the labour laws in China and the international labour convention.
This initiative has garnered massive support within China. GitHub users have been starring the repository as a way of showing their support. In the span of a few weeks, the project has been starred over 200,000 times, making it one of the fastest growing GitHub repositories in the service’s history.
The code-sharing platform GitHub, owned by Microsoft, is a place for developers to save, share, and collaborate on software projects. Most important for the 996.ICU movement is that GitHub is accessible in China. It is the dominant platform for developers to collaborate and is a crucial part of Chinese tech companies’ daily operations. Since going viral, Chinese domestic browsers, such as those by Tencent and Alibaba, have restricted access to the 996.ICU repository on their web browsers, warning users that the repository contains illegal or malicious content. We must entertain the possibility that Microsoft and GitHub will be pressured to remove the repository as well.
In response to these events, we, the workers of Microsoft and GitHub, support the 996.ICU movement and stand in solidarity with tech workers in China. We know this is a problem that crosses national borders. These same issues permeate across full time and contingent jobs at Microsoft and the industry as a whole. Another reason we must take a stand in solidarity with Chinese workers is that history tells us that multinational companies will pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom as they outsource jobs and take advantage of weak labour standards in the pursuit of profit. We have to come together across national boundaries to ensure just working conditions for everyone around the globe.
We encourage Microsoft and GitHub to keep the 996.ICU GitHub repository uncensored and available to everyone.
To other tech workers and industry supporters, we urge you to join us in our support of the 996.ICU movement.
Featured image: Lintao Zhang (Getty)