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China Debates Labour Conditions of Migrant and White-collar Workers

In the second quarter of 2019, China’s public opinion heatedly debated issues related to working conditions for both migrant and white-collar workers. On 11 April, Dou Yongyu, a construction worker, posted a video online in which he smashed a yellow safety helmet worn by front-line workers and a red helmet worn by site supervisors. While the yellow helmet was shattered into pieces after a single strike, the red helmet remained intact. The video quickly went viral, triggering a public backlash against the scarce regard of employers for the workplace safety of their migrant employees, as represented by the substandard helmets provided to Dou and his colleagues. Having initially maintained that his helmet was provided by a construction firm, Dou, nonetheless, backtracked afterwards, saying that he bought the helmet himself. The change in Dou’s account did not quell public outrage, with social media users arguing that the helmet was still of inferior quality, however he obtained it. Amid escalating public anger, China’s Emergency Management Department urged companies to ensure the quality of the equipment provided to their employers. Another debate raged over the work culture in the tech industry—in particular over the so-called ‘996 work schedule’, i.e. from 9am to 9pm and six days a week (see Li Xiaotian’s essay in the present issue). Starting from an anonymous post on GitHub in early April, the online campaign against the demanding work culture in China’s tech industry quickly gathered momentum. Chinese lawyers penned an open letter to urge the government to duly enforce labour laws, while Microsoft employees petitioned their company to decline any demands from the Chinese government to censor the debate. China’s Internet heavyweights, including Alibaba’s Ma Yun and Jingdong’s Liu Qiangdong, by contrast, vocally embraced the 996 work pattern, although their stances softened after the eruption of public outrage. NLiu

(Sources: Daily Mail; ifeng; Sina; South China Morning Post 1; South China Morning Post 2; tech.163)

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