Eight-hour workday? In China, overworked employees are lobbying for it

Society & Culture

China has a workday crisis: People are working too many hours, and without proper overtime compensation. Existing labor laws are toothless, and unionization isn’t allowed. What can the country do to ensure the well-being of its labor force?

Illustration by Derek Zheng

Question: “If everyone complied with the eight-hour workday with full two-day weekends, in what ways would society be different?”

Answer: “It’d become very normal.” 

On January 26, an answer on Zhihu, China’s version of Quora, went viral for describing a kind of life that few Chinese adults know anymore: of hallways permeated with the smell of cooked dinner, families casually strolling in the park, and people with the time and energy to host visitors or play basketball with friends. 

The post was copied to Weibo, prompting millions of Chinese social media users to congregate under the Weibo hashtag “Eight-Hour Workday.” They lamented the rise in working hours and decline in fulfillment; they described managers as “capitalists” and the government as complicit; they called out official government media for their silence.

Discussions like these, which happen out of the glare of mainstream media, hint at the Chinese government’s potential crisis of legitimacy. With GDP growth slowing, China is discovering new problems arising from its middle-income economy. People want a good life, which now, for mamy, includes labor protections, dignity, and enough leisure time to build social connections and have a private life.

Long hours, laws be damned

Long working hours have become normalized in China, especially overtime that is unpaid because it is nominally “voluntary.” Even those who aren’t part of big-name IT companies that practice “996 culture” — referring to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — are often expected to stay after work hours to prove their industriousness. In a Chengdu Economic Daily poll, more than half of respondents indicated they work overtime every day, and official data reports that only 44% of employees received compensation for overtime work, while 35.1% neither received compensation nor made use of paid annual leave. 

There’s growing evidence that employees are fed up. Complaints about the lack of overtime pay have also surged in WeChat articles. In this comic strip, a character gripes, “We’ve forgotten that we were raised to be more than a money-making machine.” 

People have also expressed outrage at the government’s weak enforcement of China’s 1994 Labor Law. Article 36, for example, reads that workers should work no more than eight hours a day and 44 hours a week on average, and Article 41 says that work can only be prolonged for at most one hour a day and 36 hours a month, compensated at a rate of at least 150% (according to Article 44). 

Certainly, there are many reasons for long working hours in China: a surplus of workers, managers equating an employee’s dedication with their hours, and companies doing whatever they can to stay competitive. Perhaps there have been real economic benefits as the result of hard work.  

However, even ignoring the fact that studies have shown that a shorter workday can increase efficiency, the country simply can’t keep up this pace of work. 

What would a future reckoning look like? 

Long hours displace time that could be spent connecting with friends and caring for children. The stress associated with long hours also enhances the perception of inequality. More people will suffer from health problems and overburden an already taxed public health system. More loneliness and burnout, lower birth rates, and a worsening elderly-to-working population ratio. 

Then there is the issue of labor unrest. A report from the Global Labour University highlighted a 2010 strike wave that affected at least 200 enterprises, starting from a prolonged strike in a Honda factory. Hong Kong’s China Labour Bulletin further reports that strikes and protests have risen in number, from 185 in 2011 to more than 1,700 in 2018. The economy has evolved away from traditional manufacturing since then, and collective action has therefore also expanded to the service sector, which now constitutes 20.7% of all instances of worker activism. 

As population growth is projected to peak around 2030, a shrinking workforce will only strengthen employees’ bargaining power, and better education coupled with the internet may help stoke unrest and dissatisfaction. Although China’s stringent internet restrictions will limit the spread of sensitive events, censorship does not have the same chokehold on areas.

For example, some of social media’s most searched-for hashtags include explainers of European and American labor movements in the 20th century, and Zhihu answers frequently make passing references to examples of labor militancy abroad. Increased education allows more people to both access the internet and read about these historical trends; they may then apply this knowledge to their own lives. The internet has further become a platform for everyone to share their work experiences. Ted Gurr’s seminal work Why Men Rebel, on political conflict and instability, also says that increased education is correlated with heightened expectations and an increase in feelings of personal competence. 

Education is usually seen as the stepping stone to a better life, but when reality falls short of these expectations, intense feelings of deprivation arise. Knowing this, one can’t help but notice the explicit references to Marx and related ideologies on Weibo. Some commenters exclaim, “Why would anyone sympathize with the capitalists?” Another popular comment lashes out at everyone who has bought into “capitalist” ideas and recommends they read more of Marx. If anything, this is evidence of nascent labor consciousness. 

Chinese users online have also been more explicitly critical of the government, particularly its response to overtime. When China Newsweek joined the Weibo hashtag to ask Weibo users what they think makes the eight-hour workday difficult to enforce, the comments at the top included, “What I think? Isn’t this the government’s responsibility?” and, “We should instead ask the government why it has not enforced the eight-hour workday.” 

What can be done?

On some level, the Chinese government recognizes that a crisis looms: At the 19th National Congress, President Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 declared that China has entered a new phase, where its main crisis lies in the conflict between the people’s growing needs and inequality. After the concept of “996” went viral, China Comment — which is state media — lamented that Chinese youth are being worked to death and criticized managers for encouraging viciously long work hours. 

However, the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, as well as its regional subsidiaries, have largely remained quiet, partially due to logistical difficulties with executing the 1994 Labor Law. 

First, the sheer number of corporations make work time extremely difficult to individually enforce. Where other nations would have active unions, China would have to rely on whistleblowers to report abuses of labor laws. However, whistleblowing currently requires employees to provide heaps of personal informations. Anonymous whistleblowing also poses problems: people may feel empowered to report unsubstantiated or misguided claims in order to chop down rival companies. This could result in the government receiving an overwhelming number of reports.

Second, loopholes in existing labor laws allow companies to require employees to work overtime without pay by arguing they “voluntarily” chose to forgo extra wages. Most Huawei employees, for example, sign a “voluntary” agreement to give up paid annual leave and to “work hard for the company.” Refusing to sign it would mean worse compensation, fewer opportunities for promotion, and ill treatment in general; in 2020, a court defended the legality of this agreement.

Are labor unions feasible?

Looking abroad, the global working class is no stranger to poor standards for labor. In America, they were remedied through labor agitation and political lobbying, resulting in President Franklin Roosevelt signing the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. In Nordic countries, strong, centralized labor unions facilitate negotiations of working conditions and wages.

In China, however, independent labor unions are not allowed. Could this change in the future? Labor academic Wang Jiangsong has said that “the party has to think twice before it suppresses the labor movement because it still claims to be a party for the working class.” 

Before attempting to reform labor unions, however, China can work with what it has: labor laws, a court-based labor dispute system, and the labor and social security inspectorate. It can revise the law code to include a robust definition of “voluntary overtime” or, possibly, outlaw rigorous incentives companies like Huawei have devised to encourage overtime. With friendlier laws, employees may find it easier to prove that they were forced to work overtime without compensation. They can then take their case to either local courts — called “labor dispute arbitration committees” — or the local inspectorate. 

The courts are usually reserved for people no longer working at the company they are suing. Here, employees face many roadblocks. China could do well to devise a baseline subsidization plan. More importantly, the state should provide easily accessible educational resources about how to proceed with a case: what an employee will need to prove, and a rundown of relevant articles in the law. This would do well in both empowering employees unfamiliar with the complexity of legal code and show that the state is serious about combatting violations of labor laws.

Another option lies in unionization. The central government has always been skeptical of giving people the reins and power to organize. The All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), China’s only legal union, should at least become more responsive to employees’ needs, and try to be a government-led instrument for collective action. 

The ACFTU’s greatest problem is that it does not “act as a genuine trade union organization,” according to a researcher writing in the Journal of Labor and Society. It mostly organizes from the top-down, setting up paper unions in companies that agree to the ACFTU’s presence, and organizes elections based on candidates selected and screened by the government. The Global Labor University writes that the ACFTU would benefit from “becom[ing] accountable to workers via elections, engag[ing] members in deciding bargaining requests and mobili[zing] them to put pressure on employers.” The ACFTU has already begun to campaign for enterprise elections, but most ACFTU reforms have not gone far enough to resolve its existential dilemma: can it act as an engine of collective bargaining without giving power to the people? 

In the absence of other means to guarantee an eight-hour workday, people will remain discontent. The solution isn’t to censor and ignore the simmering anger, but to enable employees to struggle for better working hours in a manner within the infrastructure of the state—whatever that means. At stake is nothing less than the well-being of an entire generation.