Chinese IT workers have been using the open-source code platform GitHub to air their frustration at inhumane working conditions and hours, in a development that could potentially be an international political snafu for Microsoft.
GitHub is one of the few western collaborative platforms not banned in China, which is highly sensitive to any signs of organised dissent and which restricts Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and does not allow non-Chinese cloud providers to run their own data centres.
The starting shot came with a post uploaded by Chinese IT workers on the 25 of March, to a repository dubbed 996.ICU. This took aim at the Jack Ma-backed “996” work culture of working 9am – 9pm, six days per week and it rapidly went viral.
It includes a blacklist of companies practicing a 996 culture, as well as a whitelist.
(The “ICU”? That’s where developers will end up if they work this much, the post notes, making it explicitly clear that Chinese state law sets the amount of hours one can work in a week at 44; overtime legally cannot exceed thirty-six extra hours in a month.)
The “996” working practice has got friends in high places: Alibaba founder Ma wrote on the social media platform WeChat that “I personally think that being able to work 996 is a huge blessing… Many companies and many people don’t have the opportunity to work 996. If you don’t work 996 when you are young, when can you ever work 996.
Github 996 and Microsoft
Microsoft, which bought GitHub in 2018 for $7.5 billion, could yet find itself in a tight spot, as could Beijing; blocking the platform outright, as China did in 2013, would sharply restrict its own access to a vibrant source of code development: Chinese companies have relied heavily on open source, and becoming significant contributors to GitHub.
Domestic browsers are reported to have started blocking the specific repo already.
As a number of Microsoft workers wrote in a supportive post on the code sharing hub: “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.”
The letter was initially signed by 30 Microsoft workers, however that list has now grown to over 150; it includes not just Redmond employees, but now includes names from Google, Amazon, Facebook and MIT.
Anti-996 Licensing Agreement
The 996 repo has triggered some interesting sub-projects. Suji Yan, CEO of tech company Dimension and his company’s lead counsel Katt Gu, a PhD student at the University of Illinois, have created a GitHub licensing agreement based on the 996 movement.
The Anti-996 Licensing agreement is intent to be inserted into an open source software developer’s end-user licensing agreements or EULA.
Katt Gu commented on GitHub: “The project is started purely out of my research interest with no political factors involved. The study of open source license is a new area of law and it indicates that China has gradually gaining discourse power in the world in terms of high-tech industry.”
Built around an old MIT open source license, it adds labour rights to its requirements, stating: “The individual or the legal entity must strictly comply with all applicable laws, regulations, rules and standards of the jurisdiction relating to labor and employment where the individual is physically located.”
Aaron Williamson, General Counsel & Director of Governance at the Fintech Open Source Foundation told Motherboard the inclusion of the Anti-996 licensing agreement would make any code no longer an open-source code.
“GitHub has always presented something of a dilemma because the service is so successful in how developers use it to share code and share software. If you cut off China from it, it can present genuine problems for developers and for tech firms,” James Griffiths, the author of The Great Firewall of China, told NPR.
As of today, the repo has 234,704 “stars” (or likes), 2623 commits and 20,132 forks.