In late March, anonymous activists in China introduced 996.ICU, a domain name that represents the grueling life of Chinese programmers, with the warning that these workers would end up in a hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU). Since then, a debate has raged across the country: Should Chinese IT sector employees work nine am to nine pm, six days a week? The arguments and discussions, however, have a history that is almost as old as capitalism. 996.ICU’s demand to moderate the 72-hour work week in the Chinese IT sector have a striking affinity with the slogan raised by the early socialist, Robert Owen, “Eight hours work, eight hours leisure, eight hours rest”.
Jack Ma, the founder and head of the Chinese IT giant, Alibaba has hit back with exhortations — “If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when will you?” Working overtime could be a “huge blessing” for young workers, the billionaire is reported to have said. Such platitudes, however, can barely hide the fact that the work hours in the tech sector in China — and in many other parts of the world — harken back to the times when a “sun up to sundown” working day was the norm in factories and workhouses. Ma’s comment that his company expected workers to put in 12 hours a day since it had huge commitments to its clients is testimony that the halcyon days of Fordist capitalism are past us.
Till the second half of the 20th century, many critics of capitalism had hoped that technology would liberate humankind from the drudgery of long work hours. Indeed in many countries that were early to the Industrial Revolution, the debate today is about better work-life balance. But ironically, the pushback to this demand has come from the sectors — and in countries — which are the harbingers of newer forms of technology.