“I think I am doing the right thing, but I am meeting such firm resistance”: the team behind the anti-overuse campaign in China

On the night of October 28, Meng Weifeng discovered that the public account and mini-program that he and his teammates had set up for their “WorkingTime” project, mainly consisting of a spreadsheet recording working hours in various industries across China, had been taken. compared to Tencent’s popular instant messaging service, WeChat, for no specific reason.

“The sudden deletion of our mini-program and our public account resulted in a massive loss of traffic,” Meng said in a written response to Pandaily’s questions, refusing to release his real name.

Without significant channels through which it could reach a wider audience, the viral project which amassed more than 10 million views in less than a week, was reduced to failure amid a mixture of anti-overwork sentiment and of digital censorship in Chinese society.

From “WorkerLivesMatter” to “WorkingTime”

Meng is one of four high school students who all recently landed jobs at top internet companies in China and decided to start a project to make working hours in different industries in the country more transparent to job seekers. use.

On October 8, the team launched a spreadsheet called “Company Schedules” on Tencent Docs, which allowed users to share their company’s working hours by simply editing the document themselves. Details included company names, departments, positions, cities, hours and other aspects of working conditions. On GitHub, a Microsoft-owned code-sharing site used by millions of Chinese developers, the four budding young programmers created a repository for their project and gave it an even more catchy name – “WorkerLivesMatter”.

“Workers also need to live! the campaign’s GitHub page said, referencing the country’s long-standing work-life balance dilemma. The campaign also matches an online protest organized by a group of anonymous Chinese tech workers on GitHub in early 2019 titled “996.ICU”, which means that the 996 work schedule common to the country’s tech industry – 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week – could send staff to the intensive care unit.

Different from the 996.ICU campaign, Meng’s project was based on a shareable document that welcomed contributions from employees across various industries, including tech, finance, retail, and manufacturing. The collaborative nature of the project and its ability to remain anonymous gave it a rebellious core that echoed the backlash against the excessive work culture in China and propelled its virality on social media. The spreadsheet had received 1,173 entries as of 7 p.m. on Oct. 12, just days after it went live, according to one. Publish written by one of the organizers as part of a related discussion on Zhihu, China’s Quora-style question-and-answer platform.

On October 13, the discussion ranked first on Zhihu’s trend list. A day later, a hashtag about the project went viral on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service. Given that Weibo has more than 573 million users, the importance of the hashtag marked when the efforts of Meng and his peers were revealed to the public.

However, the great popularity has brought great pressure.

One of Meng’s teammates told Pandaily he also submitted an entry detailing his internship experience at a tech company. On October 15, he received a call from his former supervisor who recognized his identity from the information he had entered into the spreadsheet. “He told me over the phone, ‘We are social animals and we have to know social norms. Your behavior has shown disrespect to our team and you had better be careful what you say and do, ”he recalls. “After I hung up I felt bad. My heart sank. I just don’t understand. I think I am doing the right thing, but I am encountering such strong resistance. Maybe my boss is right. I have to respect social norms.

Shortly after the project was in the spotlight, Meng and his team changed the name of the initiative from “WorkerLivesMatter” to “WorkingTime”. “The first one sounds like we’re going to start a social movement, which is actually not in line with our intention,” Meng said in a written response. “Our statistics will only be used in the public service to grant job seekers the right to know, to choose and to negotiate. “

(Source: Working time)

The brutal work culture in China

At the end of October, the WorkingTime spreadsheet contained more than 6,000 entries, which provided an overview of the grueling working conditions in many Chinese companies.

For example, a staff member working in TikTok owner’s live streaming unit ByteDance reported an “11-10-5” work schedule – 11 am-10pm, five days a week. An employee of Tencent Music Entertainment, Tencent’s online music subsidiary, reported a “10-11-5” schedule.

In recent years, news of incidents involving the premature deaths of young white-collar workers in China have hit the headlines and sparked criticism of the culture of extremely long working hours. Last December, a 22-year-old woman working at Pinduoduo, one of China’s largest e-commerce platforms, died after staying in the office until 1:30 a.m. Earlier this week, a 36-year-old employee of Chinese automaker BYD was found dead in a rental home and police dismissed criminal causes. According to his work records, throughout October, he had worked approximately 12 hours a day for 26 days for a total of approximately 280 hours.

Ryoma Cheng, a computer scientist at a Guangzhou-based subsidiary of a Chinese Internet titan, a company with between 3,000 and 4,000 employees, participated in the WorkingTime campaign by submitting information about his work schedule via the link that one of his colleagues transmitted to him. . Cheng told Pandaily that he usually clocked in at 10 a.m. and 10 p.m., sometimes working overtime until 5 a.m.

“I have no choice but to quit,” Cheng said. The 27-year-old Chinese Communist Party member who believed in Marxism and socialism expressed his support for the project, adding that it could not only help job seekers assess their offers, but also educate workers about the practices of operation. Cheng said he has already started looking for other jobs in hopes of maintaining a regular schedule.

(Source: IC Photo)

As Chinese authorities embarked on a regulatory crackdown on the country’s tech sector, the overtime culture of big tech companies has also come under scrutiny.

In August, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Supreme People’s Court released a collective memo of ten court rulings relating to workplace overtime disputes, and said the arrangement 996 represents a serious violation of the law on maximum permitted working hours. .

SEE ALSO: Major Chinese Governing Bodies Call Illegal Work Culture “996”

A handful of Chinese internet heavyweights have changed their labor policies in recent months. ByteDance and rival short video platform Kuaishou rolled back the so-called “big week / small week” policy requiring employees to work one Sunday every two weeks earlier this year. In November, screenshot an internal document issued by ByteDance and distributed online. The screenshot showed that the social media group requires its employees to work 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, in accordance with Chinese labor laws. But the situation is not clear. A full-time ByteDance employee said in a recent interview with Pandaily that she and her colleagues had not received any official announcements from the company, adding that they were still sticking to their work schedule. previous.

This is not the end … yet

According to a timeline posted on WorkingTime’s GitHub page, the hidden shadow of censorship enveloped the project from start to finish. Access to its GitHub repository and official site hosted on Alibaba Cloud has been blocked on browsers and email services offered by companies such as Tencent, Baidu and even Alibaba itself. On October 19, the original spreadsheet on Tencent Docs became inaccessible, and the associated Zhihu talk page also disappeared. After the WeChat public account and mini-program were removed from the project, Meng and his peers felt like they had reached a tipping point.

Shortly after their interview with Pandaily, the team announced that they had decided to end the WorkingTime project. “We are still walking our paths and the world is still spinning,” read the last note left by the youth group on their GitHub page before it was deleted on November 5. “Thanks to all the people who supported and paid attention to the project. The link to the official site has also disappeared.

What offers a silver lining, however, is the fact that this short-lived project will not be the last effort of exhausted workers across the country to tackle their grueling working conditions. Screenshots of another collaborative spreadsheet released on Chinese social media sites earlier this week, crowdsourcing a blacklist of bad managers in large Chinese internet companies and detailing workplace dynamics across different teams .

The dynamic of digital, collaborative and local campaigns in China seems to remain strong. Jiang Ying, professor at the University of Labor Relations of China and a leading expert on labor law in China, said in an article on the abusive work schedule of 996 published in People’s Daily: for the legal system to protect itself, there is a price to pay: time, money and the risk of losing your job. And as a result, they went to cyberspace.

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