A group of largely US-based Microsoft employees is pressuring their employer to defend a public statement posted on GitHub, a Microsoft-owned code sharing platform and social network for programmers, that advocates for workers’ rights in China against the increasingly common “996” workweek: 9am to 9pm, six days a week.
The original statement they're trying to protect, posted by Chinese developers about a month ago (here is an English-language translation), says overwork in the Chinese tech industry could be both a health hazard and violation of Chinese labor law. The phrase “996.ICU” is a joke, suggesting that a 72 hour workweek could land workers in intensive care.
While the post is still accessible in the United States, the Microsoft employees say it has been the target of censorship on some Chinese browsers and are concerned Microsoft could soon come under pressure by the Chinese government to remove the pro-worker repository as well.
A separate petition began circulating publicly on Monday morning asking Microsoft to ensure the post remains live in the event of such pressure. More than 30 employees have signed sharing their support for Chinese workers.
“In response to these events, we, the workers of Microsoft and GitHub, support the 996.ICU movement and stand in solidarity with tech workers in China,” their petition says. “We encourage Microsoft and GitHub to keep the 996.ICU GitHub repository uncensored and available to everyone.”
BuzzFeed News has reached out to Microsoft and GitHub for comment and will update this post with their response.
The original 996.ICU post on GitHub has nearly 230,000 stars, making it one of GitHub's most popular repositories.
The page offers resources, like a list of "work-life balanced companies" and other legal resources for workers, but says 996.ICU is "not a political movement.
“We firmly uphold the labor law and request employers to respect the legitimate rights and interests of their employees,” the page says.
This is not the first time Chinese censorship has become an issue inside a major US tech company: last year, after employees revealed that Google was secretly working on a censored search product for China codenamed Dragonfly, employees demanded that the project to be canceled, and some engineers quit their jobs in protest. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has since said the company isn't planning to imminently launch a Chinese search product, which military officials are concerned could jeopardize US interested there, but continues to be interested in the Chinese market.
Most popular American social media platforms are already blocked in China, which puts GitHub in a unique position. While the platform is primarily a place for programmers to collaborate on open source projects, the 996.ICU repository has also made it a place for programmers to discuss working conditions internationally.
This is not the first time that GitHub has been drawn into political issues. When a programmer used GitHub to build a directory of Immigration and Customs Enforcement employees using LinkedIn data, GitHub removed the project and said its creator had violated its community guidelines by scraping and posting the names and locations of immigration agency employees.
Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, who co-founded Alibaba, has endorsed the 996 work schedule, saying in a social media post last week that the model is not a problem for workers who love what they do.
American venture capitalists have also praised the concept, arguing that the sixty hour work week could allow the Chinese tech industry to surpass American innovation even more quickly.
In a Financial Times op-ed last year, Sequoia Capital partner Michael Moritz wrote: “In China … it is quite usual for the management of 10 and 15-year-old companies to have working dinners followed by two or three meetings. If a Chinese company schedules tasks for the weekend, nobody complains about missing a Little League game or skipping a basketball outing with friends. Little wonder it is a common sight at a Chinese company to see many people with their heads resting on their desks taking a nap in the early afternoon.” This cultural standard, Moritz predicted, will soon make “the habits of western companies will start to seem antique.”
But petitioners say American tech workers aren’t interested in adopting Chinese workplace habits. “We know this is a problem that crosses national borders,” the Microsoft employee petition reads. “These same issues permeate across full time and contingent jobs at Microsoft and the industry as a whole.”
Here’s the full text of the Microsoft employee petition:
Microsoft and GitHub Workers Support 996.ICU
Tech workers in China started a GitHub repository titled 996.ICU, a reference to the grueling and illegal working hours of many tech companies in China - from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. "By following the '996' work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (Intensive Care Unit)," says the 996.ICU GitHub project description. The project calls for Chinese tech companies to obey the labor laws in China and the international labor convention.
This initiative has garnered massive support within China. GitHub users have been starring the repository as a way of showing their support. In the span of a few weeks, the project has been starred over 200,000 times, making it one of the fastest growing GitHub repositories in the service's history.
The code-sharing platform GitHub, owned by Microsoft, is a place for developers to save, share, and collaborate on software projects. Most important for the 996.ICU movement is that GitHub is accessible in China. It is the dominant platform for developers to collaborate and is a crucial part of Chinese tech companies' daily operations. Since going viral, Chinese domestic browsers, such as those by Tencent and Alibaba, have restricted access to the 996.ICU repository on their web browsers, warning users that the repository contains illegal or malicious content. We must entertain the possibility that Microsoft and GitHub will be pressured to remove the repository as well.
In response to these events, we, the workers of Microsoft and GitHub, support the 996.ICU movement and stand in solidarity with tech workers in China. We know this is a problem that crosses national borders. These same issues permeate across full time and contingent jobs at Microsoft and the industry as a whole. Another reason we must take a stand in solidarity with Chinese workers is that history tells us that multinational companies will pit workers against each other in a race to the bottom as they outsource jobs and take advantage of weak labor standards in the pursuit of profit. We have to come together across national boundaries to ensure just working conditions for everyone around the globe.
We encourage Microsoft and GitHub to keep the 996.ICU GitHub repository uncensored and available to everyone.
To other tech workers and industry supporters, we urge you to join us in our support of the 996.ICU movement.