Alibaba Group founder and billionaire Jack Ma again weighed in on the Chinese tech industry’s gruelling overtime work culture on Sunday, this time calling enforced long hours “unsustainable”.
Ma’s comment followed his remarks on Thursday that working overtime could be a “huge blessing” for young workers who found careers they were dedicated to.
He was responding to a debate that has emerged in recent weeks among Chinese tech workers over the 996 schedule, which means working 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Industry workers set up a discussion group called “996.ICU” on the code-sharing platform GitHub, suggesting that anyone working those hours all the time could end up in a hospital intensive care unit with burnout.
“If you find a job you like, the 996 problem does not exist; if you’re not passionate about it, every minute of going to work is a torment,” Ma said in a post on his Weibo account on Sunday.
“No one likes working at a company that forces you to do ‘996’. Not only is it inhumane, it’s unhealthy and even more unsustainable for long periods – plus workers, relatives and the law do not approve of it,” he said. “In the long term, even if you pay a higher salary, employees will all leave.”
Ma added that companies that thought they could profit by forcing staff to work overtime were “foolish” and doomed to fail.
But in a speech to Alibaba staff on Thursday, Ma said the company expected people to be ready to work 12 hours a day since it had huge commitments to its clients.
“If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when will you? Do you think never having to work 996 in your life is an honour to boast about?” he said in the speech. “If you don’t put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?”
In the Weibo post on Sunday, Ma said: “Real 996 should be spending time learning, thinking and for self-improvement. The people who stick to 996 must have found their passion there, and their happiness besides from money.”
Ma said he expected to be criticised for his views but he felt it was necessary to talk about the issue.
Some of the comments on Ma’s post criticised him as out of touch, and for having little regard for his workers. “Only talk of working hard, but silent on wages – this is typical language used by people who exploit others,” read one comment.
Many other Chinese tech giants have come under the spotlight for their intense corporate culture. Senior executives at Huawei, Baidu and JD.com have previously urged staff to increase their working hours, become dedicated “strivers” and embody a competitive, fearless “wolf spirit”.
Last week, a WeChat post attributed to JD.com founder Richard Liu Qiangdong, commenting on reports of the online retailer’s plan to sack underperformers, said he would not consider “slackers” as his “brothers”. He also called for colleagues to join him in striving for the company.
The ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece also stepped into the debate later on Sunday, with a commentary in People’s Daily saying those who questioned 996 should not be “labelled”.
“Valuing hard work does not equate to forcing employees to work overtime,” the commentary said. “One should not attach the moral labels of ‘slackers’ or ‘not willing to strive’ to employees who are against 996.”
It also criticised the culture of mandatory overtime as unhealthy and inefficient.
Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.