China's tech bosses join debate on long work hours

Mr Richard Liu, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com.
Mr Richard Liu, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com.
Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma
Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma

JD.com founder slams 'slackers' as firm cuts jobs amid slowdown

SHANGHAI • Mr Richard Liu, the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, has weighed in on an ongoing debate about the Chinese tech industry's gruelling overtime work culture, lamenting that years of growth had increased the number of "slackers" in his firm who are not his "brothers".

Mr Liu's comments, which Chinese media said were posted on his personal WeChat feed last Friday, are the latest contribution to a growing discussion about work-life balance in the tech industry as the sector slows after years of breakneck growth.

They also come amid reports last week that the company is in the throes of widespread layoffs. Three company sources told Reuters that cuts began earlier this year and had become more extensive in recent weeks.

A JD.com spokesman confirmed the authenticity of Mr Liu's note. He declined to comment on layoffs, but said some adjustments were happening as a normal part of business.

"JD.com is a competitive workplace that rewards initiative and hard work, which is consistent with our entrepreneurial roots," the spokesman said. "We're getting back to those roots as we seek, develop and reward staff who share the same hunger and values."

In the note, Mr Liu, who started the company that would become JD.com in 1998, spoke about how in the firm's earliest days he would set his alarm clock to wake him up every two hours to ensure he could offer his customers 24-hour service - a step that he said was crucial to JD's success.

"JD in the last four, five years has not made any eliminations, so the number of staff has expanded rapidly, the number of people giving orders has grown and grown, while those who are working have fallen," Mr Liu wrote.

SLACKERS HURT BUSINESS

If this carries on, JD will have no hope! And the company will only be heartlessly kicked out of the market! Slackers are not my brothers!

MR RICHARD LIU , the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com.

A BLESSING TO WORK HARD

To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss... If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining?

ALIBABA GROUP FOUNDER JACK MA

NO COMPENSATION

The bosses do 996 because they're working for themselves and their wealth is growing. We work 996 because we're exploited without overtime compensation.

COMMENT ON SOCIAL MEDIA WEBSITE WEIBO

 

"Instead, the number of slackers has rapidly grown! If this carries on, JD will have no hope! And the company will only be heartlessly kicked out of the market! Slackers are not my brothers!" he added.

The term he used, which is commonly translated in China as "slackers" can be directly translated as people who drift along aimlessly or waste time.

Three JD employees, who declined to be named as they were not permitted to speak to the media, told Reuters that morale at the company was low after several senior executive departures and layoffs across the firm in recent weeks.

One said the cuts also affected vice-president-level staff.

"Now is kind of an inflection point, where too many people and too many business leaders or department leaders have been laid off. No one is safe," one of the sources said.

He added that it had affected productivity in his department and that many workers checked Weibo, the stock markets or played games rather than focus on work.

The layoffs "are pretty much all JD employees can talk about", he said.

Tech website The Information reported last week that JD.com could cut up to 8 per cent of its workforce.

JD, which had more than 178,000 full-time employees at the end of last year, said the figure was incorrect.

Other Chinese tech giants have lowered growth forecasts and cut staff bonuses amid the slowdown, and these have driven calls for better work conditions for its workers.

The "996" work schedule, which refers to a 9am-to-9pm workday, six days a week, has in particular become the target of online debate and protests on some coding platforms, where workers have swopped examples of excessive overtime demands at some firms.

Alibaba Group founder and billionaire Jack Ma also weighed in last Friday, telling the company's employees in a speech that the opportunity to work such hours was a "blessing".

"To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss," Mr Ma said. "If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining?"

The comments from Mr Ma elicited some intense reactions.

"The bosses do 996 because they're working for themselves and their wealth is growing," one comment on Weibo read. "We work 996 because we're exploited without overtime compensation."

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 14, 2019, with the headline 'China's tech bosses join debate on long work hours'. Print Edition | Subscribe