1.416.536.KEEN (5336)

The founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Jack Ma took some heat recently for praising his company’s punishing work culture.At his organization, which has lined Ma’s pockets to the tune of US$39.1 billion (making him among the world’s wealthiest souls), employees toil from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. And that’s just fine.

“To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss,” Ma said, then blasted anyone even thinking of joining his massive conglomerate to not bother if they don’t favour twelve-hour work days. 

Baba, as Ma’s bank is known, is hardly unique in its all-work preference. Lots of internet firms in Mainland China purportedly embrace the same pitiless philosophy. Chinese e-commerce firms Youzan and JD.com allegedly practice 996, and Youzan chief executive Bai Ya has talked about the company’s adoption of it on Chinese New Year.

Only problem, say the critics, is that it’s illegal. The People’s Republic of China’s Labour Law states that labourers shouldn’t work more than eight hours a day or forty-four hours a week. How much weight this carries, however, is dubious. Consider the case of Bai Ya’s New Year’s announcement, and the investigation by the Hangzhou Xihu Labor Inspection Brigadeit triggered. Afterward, the brigade sent a faxed statement to the South China Morning Post saying they’d found no evidence of Youzan practicing such a schedule.

Last month, a clutch of no-doubt weary programmers took matters into their own hands and launched an Anti-996 protest that links the grinding work hours with poor health. The campaign’s logo features a guy on IV in a hospital bed and its slogan is “developers’ lives matter.” They vented their spleens on GitHub—the coder hangout Microsoft purchased in 2018, a standout for the unpatrolled sanctuary it offers this population for private grieving.

The 996.icu repository rocketed in popularity from the get-go, and was the second-most-starred when it was shut down in the second week of April.

The whole thing has stirred the muck in China, a standout digital protest in the part of the world where cyberspace is more censored than anywhere else.