Is 996 Truly a Blessing? Let’s Hear What Richard Liu and Jack Ma Have to Say

On April 12, Richard Liu, CEO of JD.com responded to the recent scandal of layoffs, “earthquake” of senior managers and 996 rumors in his Wechat moment. He said that JD.com would never force employees to work in a 995 or 996 schedule, but every staff of JD.com must have a competitive spirit! “Those who fool around all day long are not my brothers! I am responsible for the 180,000 families behind the 180,000 brothers. So I cannot cover for those one percent who fool around, I have no choice!”

It has been a long-held tradition that Chinese Internet companies are having long mandatory working hours. The term 996 became popular among the Chinese Internet industry: You go to work at 9 in the morning and finish your work at 9 at night. Instead of having a full weekend, you now work 6 days a week. Ironically, you are meant to be grateful when you still have one day off each week.

After its founder and CEO Richard Liu got involved in a sexual assault case earlier in 2018, Chinese E-commerce firm JD.com now faces another round of public relation disaster. A leaked internal company email revealed that JD.com, a company that once valued all its employees as “brothers and sisters”, is now treating them as potential encumbrances that need to be got rid of as soon as possible.

Richard Liu replied to a weekly report email from the customer experience and service department. In his brief reply, Liu said that the company needs to weed out three kinds of employees: Those who fail to make sacrifices for work, those who are not performing well, and those who are having a rather low outcome-salary ratio. The matter became extremely controversial as he expressed his intentions to relegate those senior employees if they cannot handle the demanding tasks. Furthermore, Liu is suggesting that those older employees or employees who have family obligations should be driven out of the company.

These words received huge public backlashes, as many Internet users and blogs are condemning the E-commerce company for its lack of empathy and its unethical business practices. In fact, JD’s practices are in fact illegal in developed countries. Discriminations based on age and family status are strictly prohibited under the employment standards. In addition, senior employees who are eliminated by the employers would be entitled to a compensation package, making them less vulnerable to the changes inside the company.

However, as one of the best companies in China, JD.com is leading the industry towards the wrong direction. Without proper measures to file complaints or renegotiate terms and contracts, employees seem so powerless facing the decisions of their employers. The nature of the employment, which originated from the master-slave relationship, thus started to show its brutal side here: When it comes to economic fluctuations, or any changes that occur in the economy, the employees, rather than the employers, will be the ones that suffer the most.

Richard Liu’s comments nevertheless suggested such mentality. As the CEO of nearly 180,000 employees, Liu is showing his preferences on selecting the young, energetic “slaves” over those who have worked for him for years. It is never about loyalty or friendship. It is more about maintaining the profit margin and one’s unshakable control over the corporation.

While the public might be furious about JD.com’s labor practices, the company is not likely to be punished for these unethical and to some extent, illegal actions. The labor arbitration processes made it harder for employees to file their claims against their employers, especially when their employers are industrial giants with enormous resources. And economically, it is unrealistic to call for a boycott on JD’s services and products. With the current near-monopoly scenario, there will always be customers that are relying on the e-commerce platform to purchase the needed products.

Regardless of how they manage their companies internally, they are less likely to face punitive damages or consequences both in a court of law or in the consumer market. People may not like what these companies are doing to their employees, but as consumers in the market, the public has very little choice but to continue using their services. The lack of punishment is making such malpractices viable, and unfortunately, a potential strategy to make the companies profitable and lucrative for a long period of time.

Industry-leading firms are defending their decisions to adopt the 996 working model. Jack Ma, the CEO of JD.com’s main domestic rivalry Alibaba, says that Alibaba’s employees should be proud of having the honor of working on a 996 schedule. In his speech for the company’s employees, Ma attributed his success to the amount of time that he put in his work. Jack Ma says all employees should be prepared to work 12 hours a day. “It is easy to fill our positions with those who only want to work for 8 hours a day.” Ma’s comments received public backlash as well, and many critics called out Ma for confusing the concept of putting in extra work and forced to work longer in fear of losing their jobs.

Compared with Richard Liu, Jack Ma seems to take a milder approach to lecture people on the positive side of 996 working schedule. After meticulous contemplation, he posted his explanation of the issue on Weibo.

“Regarding whether or not 996 is right, the laws and regulations are just there for you to see. But that’s not the core of the issue. The point is whether we have seriously thought about our own choices, the meanings and significance of our life and struggle. There will be no more torment or regret if you think it through. If you found your passion in life, there is no such thing as 996; if you don’t love your job, every minute is torture. Finding a job is like being in a relationship. Time is irrelevant when it comes to true love. But every minute spent in an unfit marriage feels like a lifetime.”

It seems like Jack Ma has indeed found the love of his life, but what about those struggling just to make a living.

The less-than-ideal working condition made some labor activists see the necessity of change. Several advocates started a website named 996.icu, which refers to the fact that if the 996 model continues, people will end up in the intensive care unit in the hospital. The website listed companies that are adopting the 996 models, and are calling the public to raise awareness on the matter.

The father of the Python programming language, Dutch programmer Guido van Rossum, tweeted, calling the 996 work schedule “inhumane” and suggesting something of a radical solution: “The people have to force the government to change the law. If the government won’t, strike. If they break the strike with police, start a revolution,” he tweeted.

Featured photo credit to sina