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Employers Can't Require People To Work 72 Hours A Week, China's High Court Says

Workers in China have earned a victory over employers' onerous work schedules, as the Supreme People's Court says a common schedule that requires people to work 12 hours a day for six days a week is illegal.

In recent years, several worker deaths have been linked to such schedules, which are common in the tech industry and in other sectors, such as logistics.

One case highlighted in the high court's recent decision revolves around a man named Zhang. He was hired by a courier company last summer, working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week — the schedule that has become notorious under the shorthand "996" label.

Under Chinese law, monthly overtime totals are essentially limited to 36 hours. Zhang refused to work illegal amounts of overtime — as dictated by his schedule — and was fired. The courier company said Zhang failed to fulfill the requirements of his probation period. But he disagreed, and an arbitration panel ordered his former employer to pay him a month's salary of 8,000 yuan (about $1,237).

The high court affirmed that decision last week, saying that Zhang had been fired illegally and that the company's work policies run afoul of the law.

The ruling presents a prominent rebuke to the 996 schedule, which in recent years has sparked online protests and criticism.

Dissatisfaction with the long work hours made headlines early this year after a young woman dropped dead after working a string of excessively long shifts for a Chinese e-commerce startup called Pinduoduo. Many of the firm's employees came forward to say they regularly worked more than 300 hours each month — far surpassing legal limits.

The high court's decision is based on at least 10 cases in which workers said they were being unfairly denied overtime pay and related compensation, including payment for injuries incurred while working overtime. Some of the cases also centered on disputes that erupted after employers sought to use special agreements with their employees to circumvent labor laws.

Another case centers on a worker named Li, who the court said died from overwork in late 2018. The man worked for an employment service firm that sent him to work at an unidentified media company.

One year after he was hired, Li regularly worked about 300 hours or more each month. In a typical month, he was not given more than three days off work, a condition that the court said severely violated his right to rest.

Li fainted in a bathroom at work and died of a heart attack on Dec. 1 as he neared the end of a 12-hour overnight shift. His relatives sought compensation for his death as well as funeral expenses. In its ruling, the court affirmed that both the media company and the service company that directly hired Li bear joint responsibility for compensating the man's family.

The court acknowledged the intense competition that drives Chinese companies to maximize profits and cut labor costs. But, it added, extreme overtime harms workers' physical and mental health, their family life and their ability to pursue a social life.

Resistance to the 996 schedule sparked online protests in 2019, when put-upon workers connected with each other and exchanged information on a GitHub project called 996.ICU.

The organizers said that the name reflects "an ironic saying among Chinese developers, which means that by following the '996' work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (Intensive Care Unit)."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.