What is the “996” work system, and is it legal?

The 996 working hour system (Chinese: 996工作制), is a work schedule practiced by some companies in China. It derives its name from its requirement that employees work from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, 6 days per week; i.e. 72 hours per week.

A number of Chinese internet companies have adopted this system as their official work schedule.

It has been reported that at least 40 companies, including Huawei, Pinduoduo, JD.com and Alibaba Group, have implemented the 996 schedule or an even more intensive alternative.

Critics have long argued that the 996 working hour system is a violation of Chinese law and have even gone so far as to call it called it “modern slavery.”

Recently, the Ministry of human resources and social security and the Supreme People’s court jointly released the second batch of typical cases of labour and personnel disputes and found the 996 working system to be invalid.

According to the facts of the case, Mr Zhang joined an express company in June 2020 and the labour contract signed by both parties agreed that the probation period was three months; the monthly salary during the probation period was 8000 Yuan.

According to the company’s rules and regulations, the working hours were from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., six days a week.

Two months later, Mr Zhang refused to work overtime on the grounds that his working hours seriously exceeded the legal upper limit. The express company terminated the labour contract with Mr Zhang on the grounds that he had proved not to meet the employment conditions during the probation period.

Mr Zhang applied to the labour and personnel dispute arbitration committee for arbitration, requesting the express company pay 8000 Yuan compensation for illegal termination of the contract.

After deliberation, the Arbitration Commission ruled that the express company should pay 8000 Yuan compensation for the illegal termination of the labour contract, and inform the labour and social security supervision organisation of the case.

The labour and social security supervision organisation ordered the express company to correct its rules and regulations and gave it a warning.

The “996” working system was found to be invalid

Article 41 of the labour law of the People’s Republic of China stipulates that: “the employer may extend the working hours after consultation with the trade union and workers due to the needs of production and operation.”

Generally, it shall not exceed one hour a day. If it is necessary to extend the working hours for special reasons, the extended working hours shall not exceed three hours a day under the condition of ensuring the health of the workers, but not more than 36 hours a month.

Article 43 stipulates that: “the employing unit shall not extend the working hours of workers in violation of the provisions of this law.”

The case analysis points out that in order to ensure workers’ right to rest, China’s law clearly stipulates the upper limit of extended working hours. If an employer formulates an overtime system in violation of the law, even if the employee signs the labour contract, that violates the provisions of the law, it shall be deemed invalid.

In this case, the content of “working hours from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm, 6 days a week” in the rules and regulations of the express company seriously violated the provisions of the law on extending the upper limit of working hours and was deemed invalid.

Mr Zhang refused illegal overtime arrangements to protect his legitimate rights and interests, it cannot be determined that he was not qualified for employment during the probation period.

Therefore, the Arbitration Commission ruled that the express company should pay compensation for Zhang’s illegal termination of the labour contract.

Overtime work frequently causes labour disputes

Typical cases point out that the law not only supports employers to exercise their management functions and powers according to the law, but also makes it clear that they must fulfil their obligations to protect the rights of workers.

The rules and regulations of the employer and the corresponding work arrangements must comply with the provisions of laws and administrative regulations, otherwise it will not only bear the consequences of the violation of the law, but also be detrimental to stable labour relations and the promotion of its healthy development.

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