Overwork, Pointless Work, Avoiding Work, and Legal Work: The Contradictions of Labour

by Kevin Lin

ON 25 AUGUST 2021, the Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) issued a joint document that included the legal judgements in ten labour dispute cases.1 The document was intended to provide guidance for rulings in similar future cases. The first case on the list, and the one that galvanised the most public interest, relates to the unfair dismissal of a parcel delivery worker for refusing overtime. Zhang, the worker, was hired by an unnamed courier company in early 2020 with a probation period of three months and a monthly salary of 8,000 yuan. The working hours were 9am to 9pm, six days a week, which is at least 17 hours over the legal weekly limit or double the legal monthly limit — a classic example of the ‘996’ work culture first experienced by tech workers in 2019 but increasingly prevalent across many other sectors. After two months but still within his probation period, Zhang decided to refuse this schedule on the grounds of the overtime being excessive and illegal. In response, the company terminated his contract, blaming Zhang for being unable to fulfil the conditions of his employment.

Subsequently, Zhang submitted his case to the Employment Dispute Arbitration Commission. He asked for 8,000 yuan in compensation for the illegal termination of his contract. The commission determined in Zhang’s favour and instructed the company to pay the compensation. In addition, the commission referred the case to a local labour supervisory body so it could issue the company a warning and require it to update its contracts to accord with China’s labour laws. The court document concludes by reaffirming the Labour Law of the PRC, which stipulates overtime cannot exceed three hours a day, or thirty-six hours a month, and any employment contract in violation of the law is void by default.

The Supreme People’s Court document, immediately picked up by Chinese media, was widely interpreted as a not-so-subtle warning to companies about the illegality of the ‘996’ work culture. It is pertinent to note that the Labour Law cited by this ruling was promulgated as far back as 1995; subsequent amendments did not alter any of the provisions relating to overtime. In other words, the law has been very clear on the question of what constitutes illegal overtime for more than two and half decades. Unpaid and excessive overtime — which is endemic in the export-oriented industrial sector — was the focus of factory workers’ rights advocacy for much of that period. In any other year, such an obscure arbitration ruling would most likely have received no notice.

The degree of media attention is best explained by the fact that work in all its manifestations has become increasingly central in the Chinese public consciousness. Whether it manifests in the emerging disquiet over the treatment of delivery workers, exasperation at the work-until-you-drop culture among white-collar tech workers or the sense of exhaustion among the broader working population, work — overwork, pointless work, avoiding work, and withdrawal from work — is today at the core of China’s social contradictions. New generations of workers are growing more and more uneasy, impatient, and angry at the degradations of work and the failed promises of social mobility. This has compelled the Chinese authorities to tackle these issues more forthrightly. The Party-State has voiced strong support for basic labour rights under existing laws and has pushed companies to abide by them.

Labour rights advocacy by grassroots organisations, however, has been made all but impossible following years of tightening restrictions over civil society.2 The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) 中华全国总工会 has been under pressure for a decade from both the central government and workers to improve labour rights protections and workplace union representation. But social stability and economic growth have taken absolute precedence politically so the ACFTU no longer pushes hard to increase workers’ representation in the workplace and, at best, provides only a narrow range of legal services to workers. Beyond the ACFTU, open advocacy for labour rights entails substantial risks for both individuals and organisations. Since 2015, dozens of labour activists have been arrested and more than a dozen non-governmental organisations (NGOs) devoted to labour rights have closed. But ongoing conflicts, especially in non-manufacturing sectors, continue to drive workers to demand better treatment. However, many of these conflicts have been left unresolved because of the absence of institutional mediation by either the ACFTU or grassroots labour rights organisations that channel workers’ grievances, while the legal channels are not yet adequately equipped to handle cases in the newest economic sectors.

These contradictions in labour relations continue to emerge, growing in part out of China’s economic restructuring away from low-cost manufacturing towards the tech and service sectors, with the former leading the national drive for more high-tech production and innovation, while the service sector supports it by providing services and absorbing the workforce made obsolete by economic restructuring. Labour disputes are now more likely to involve platform labour (ride-share, delivery, and other workers who are connected with customers by an online platform or app) and office workers. While these disputes remain few compared with past strikes and other collective actions by factory workers, their symbolic impact has been significant because more people have personal interactions with platform workers and some have been directly affected when such workers strike — all of which has helped raise public awareness of the issue. Over the years, local authorities have become adept at resolving factory disputes, but they are less experienced in dealing with platform and office workers. Moreover, many of the newer issues resonate far beyond the workplace or any sector, spilling into the public domain.

Unstable Platforms

Platform labour, for many workers, is the promise that has failed most spectacularly. As China shifted away from low-wage manufacturing employment, platform work — such as with ride-hailing Didi 嘀嘀打车 and food delivery services Meituan 美团 and Ele.me 饿了么 — offered to not only absorb the surplus workforce but also provide better pay and more autonomy, including flexibility in terms of hours.

In reality, platform work in China as elsewhere is predicated on working extended hours and submitting to impersonal algorithmic control. It is arguably even more oppressive than factory employment because of the constant monitoring of its workers’ location and activity. The autonomy and flexibility that supposedly come with this type of work evaporate under such surveillance. Once companies began to cut rates of pay and shorten mandatory delivery times, resulting in more penalties and fines, it did not take long for delivery workers to organise collective actions. They did so despite the supposed weakness of their position — the existence of plenty of others ready to take their place if they lost their job — and geographic dispersion.3

A wave of strikes by platform-based express delivery workers hit companies in China’s bourgeoning e-commerce industry in October and November 2020 across several cities.4 Even though deliveries became particularly important during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, workers nonetheless saw their conditions worsen. One of the first strikes took place on 12 October, when a group of delivery workers in Changsha demanded to be paid wages owed to them after their local delivery station, which was responsible for paying them, closed. Several strikes across Shanghai, Fujian, and Hubei provinces followed. Some of these strikers were also owed unpaid wages. Others were protesting the lowering of delivery fees, which made already marginal incomes even more precarious, or increasingly severe fines for late delivery. While not reaching the militant level of industrial workers’ actions that shut production at the height of China’s labour movement in the late 2000s and early 2010s, several waves of strikes by platform workers over the past two years, which have affected logistics chains, put the platform economy on notice.5

Patterns of corporate behaviour and worker reactions in the platform economy show remarkable similarities across the globe.6 Companies start out offering generous incentives to both workers and customers, but once they consolidate a near-monopolistic market position, they withdraw these incentives, introduce cost-cutting measures, and tighten control over workers. Wherever the platform economy becomes dominant, workers start to organise themselves into informal networks, associations or unions. But the problems are intractable without addressing the underlining issue: the recommodification of labour.

The platform economy recommodifies labour by redefining those who provide the labour as independent contractors, removing legal protections embedded in formal employment relationships. It is not just a matter of legal ambiguity but also an attempt to create a new norm for employment relations. Globally, platform workers have pushed back, asking not only for better pay but also to have their status reclassified as employees so that legal protections can apply. In China, platform workers have mostly focused on pay and have not called explicitly for reclassification. However, the Chinese authorities themselves have made efforts to classify platform workers as employees. The document issued by the Supreme People’s Court and the MOHRSS specifically asserted that China’s labour laws do not permit exceptions for the platform economy.

In China, the migrant workers who constitute the core of platform workers have made real gains over the past four decades in labour protection, but the conditions of the platform economy threaten to take away some of their gains.

Tech Problems

Many tech workers are employed by the same giant e-commerce and tech companies as delivery workers, though they might never meet except at the point of food or parcel delivery. Once much sought-after, positions in tech companies such as Alibaba and Huawei have steadily declined in prestige. Companies began running into financial difficulties in 2018 and 2019, ushering in rounds of layoffs and voluntary redundancies. Partly in reaction to this decline, young people began to rebel against the 996 work culture that no longer affords them the same pay and benefits.

Online mobilisation by tech workers for labour rights in early 2019 came as a surprise to managers, who did not expect such high-earning employees to embrace activism.7 Although only a minority of tech workers played the role of core labour organisers of the online campaign, a significant number responded to the mobilisation and it is likely a wider group of white-collar workers were at least sympathetic. Tech workers may be at the most extreme end of this work culture, consistently expected to work more and more hours for the firms to stay competitive, but white-collar workers more generally are often subject to similar conditions. Tech and other white-collar workers see themselves and their middle-class professional jobs as increasingly ‘proletarianised’, with their work hours and feelings of exploitation resembling those of rural migrant workers. Indeed, many have identified themselves as ‘migrant workers’ 打工人 who work merely in the ‘internet big factories’ 互联网大厂.8 This explains the strong resonance in Chinese society generated by the online mobilisation. In 2021, giant tech and e-commerce companies were feeling the squeeze from the US–China trade conflict as well as a wide-ranging regulatory crackdown by the central government on issues ranging from data security to monopolistic and predatory lending practices.

Slang related to dissatisfaction with work, such as ‘lying flat’, have gained popularity
Source: Gauthier Delecroix, Flickr

It is not a coincidence that in the same period, slang related to dissatisfaction with work suddenly gained popularity, such as ‘involution’ 内卷, which signifies a sense of stagnation or losing an unfair competition, and ‘lying flat’ 躺平, which means deliberately withdrawing from the competition entirely, knowing one cannot win.9 The reality is the option of lying flat simply does not exist. Economic and social pressures compel people to work harder and longer despite feeling stuck and unable to escape. The threat — even the half-joking threat — of lying flat, as expressed in a variety of cat memes and other forms of online expression, has alarmed authorities. An opinion piece in the state-backed Guangming Daily commented that while the reasons for lying flat are understandable, it is not good for China’s social and economic development.10

The discussion around 996 and working hours has transcended the legal confines of labour rights. It is about much more than overwork. It has spilled into a broader debate about quality of life. In particular, the discussion of ‘involution’ demonstrates that people are instinctively grasping at structural constraints and barriers.

An Imperfect Union

The Party-State has begun to take increasingly assertive action to pressure tech companies on workers’ rights, issuing stern warnings to delivery companies and tech giants to sign labour contracts and provide social security to employees. It has also pressured companies to create trade unions affiliated with the official ACFTU in their workplaces. Didi and JD.com were the first such companies to announce the establishment of unions in 2021, and other companies will likely follow suit, if only nominally.

A decisive feature of China’s state–society relations today is that the institutions that could mediate labour conflicts are either absent or constrained to formal roles, like the ACFTU, which is institutionally subordinate and answerable to the government. The ACFTU has pulled back significantly from its more reformist drive of the early 2010s to represent China’s migrant factory workers. It has not to date established a strong foothold among workers in either platform or tech companies. Grassroots labour rights activism, meanwhile, continues to be suppressed. Rights-based labour NGOs are the only independent representatives of workers in China and, since 2015, all have come under increasing state and police control as part of the attack against the influence of ‘foreign forces’ in China. The authorities’ moves to shut or otherwise subdue labour NGOs seems to be motivated by concerns about NGOs’ ability to organise workers independently, leading to actions with the potential to be economically destabilising and harmful to social ‘harmony’. Such actions have been so successful that the only NGOs that remain have been reduced to providing social services (usually as part of state-funded social welfare programs) and no longer play any proactive role in mediating conflicts.

Yet the conflicts around labour rights have become more prominent than at any time since the Foxconn workers’ suicides in the early 2010s. Such conflicts are embedded in a set of broader public concerns about equality, fairness, and social mobility. One of the most intractable contradictions of all is that between the growth imperative that keeps the Chinese economy running and the social imperative of maintaining a degree of popular support by sharing out its benefits more equitably. Is there a way out that satisfies both growth and common prosperity?

More equal distribution of incomes and wealth is possible. Inequality and wealth distribution are back on the Communist Party of China’s agenda, after taking a back seat for much of the past decade to plans such as ‘dual circulation’ (involving the stimulation of the domestic economy), which was aimed at restoring economic growth. In 2021, Xi Jinping’s 习近平 promotion of ‘common prosperity’ turned the focus to a more equitable distribution of the fruits of economic growth. It targeted high-profile entertainers for tax evasion and companies for mistreating their workers. It is far from certain whether these actions, even if they are followed through, will have a significant impact on economic fairness and work culture. Addressing the contradictions more thoroughly would require a radical transformation of the economy and the balance of workers’ power vis-a-vis that of capital, which the government has not shown any willingness to do.11

Finally, even if economic growth can be maintained while improving economic equality, growth itself is increasingly coming up against environmental limits. In the face of the climate crisis — perhaps the ultimate contradiction of all — the growth imperative itself must be called into question. The Party under General Secretary Xi has committed itself to sharply reducing China’s carbon dioxide emissions. If the electricity shortages and blackouts of early October 2021 are any indication, balancing the energy demands of growth with the imperative to deal with the climate and environmental emergencies may lead to hard choices and impact people’s lives in ways we are only starting to grapple with. Figuring out how to redistribute economic resources more fairly, protect the rights and dignity of workers, and reduce environmental destruction should take precedence over devotion to the economic growth that has contributed to all the above problems.