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Glitzy nightlife, museums, live concerts – Shanghai promises everything that attracts young professionals to an expensive city. But Li Zhepeng, a 25-year-old who arrived from China’s heartland, wasn’t able to enjoy any of it.

Instead, he spent his time at the office working. He would clock in at 9 am, after a 90-minute commute to the outer suburbs where his e-commerce firm rented cheap office space and usually left well after 8 pm.

“Sometimes, there was no reason for the long hours – it was just the whole work culture,” Li says. The young professional was expected to stick to a gruelling work schedule that has become so pervasive in Chinese companies that it’s now commonly referred to as 996: working from nine in the morning to nine in the evening, six days a week.

Refusing the 12-hour workday

As a low-level employee at an e-commerce site, Li was tasked with posting descriptions of toys and backpacks. He was even expected to work on Sundays, when he’d reply to questions from customers from Australia, Europe or the US from home.

For that, Li received a salary of 3,500 yuan a month, or about $560 (£406). That’s less than half of the monthly rental cost of a one-bedroom apartment outside the city centre, and so he’s sharing a small apartment with three flatmates.

Li said that initially, he felt he couldn’t be too picky: he had majored in English, not in one of the sought-after science or technology fields, and he had attended a low-ranked university. Many of his friends are unemployed.

But he nonetheless then became part of a phenomenon that experts have started to notice – young professionals pushing back against employers who expect them to work around the clock.

At the forefront are millennials who are often better educated, more aware of their rights and more interested in finding something fulfilling than the previous generation. And as only children (China’s one-child policy wasn’t eased until 2015), they are also outspoken and pampered.

“In my experience, young people, especially the post-90s generation, are reluctant to work overtime – they are more self-centred,” says labour rights expert Li Jupeng, one of many who has observed some millennials challenging the 996 concepts.

Legal dangers

Li, for example, quickly decided that he hadn’t come to Shanghai to spend every waking hour in an office or commuting.

“You work around the clock, and you get very, very tired,” Li says. “But if you complain, they say you can just go and find another job.” After just 20 days on the job, he resigned.

In some cases, young workers have sued their employers. That’s according to a report by Zhang Xiaolin, a senior legal counsel at Wusong Network Technology (a Beijing-based law consulting company) and venture capital firm China Growth Capital.

“Theoretically, a 996 work schedule is against the law,” she says. Companies may apply for special permission to adopt a 996 schedule if their business warrants it. Pilots or train conductors, for example, can work longer shifts than the eight hours stipulated under Chinese law. But e-commerce businesses like the one Li was working for do not qualify.

“So even if these companies try to apply for such working hours, most of them would not get approval from the labour administration,” Zhang says. In legal disputes, that can put the employee at an advantage.

It’s not just the hours, but also the pay – more than 40% of start-ups they interviewed did not have a clear compensation scheme for overtime, she added.

In his second job, also at an e-commerce firm, Li was more self-confident. He spoke to his boss, asked for a more manageable workload and to leave on time every once in a while. She agreed.

To most of his colleagues, speaking up was a brave move. “They said I was their idol,” he says.

BBC

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