Jack Ma and his overtime expectations a little too much

Andy Boreham
Opinion has become divided in China this week after two billionaires – Alibaba's Jack Ma and JD.com's Liu Qiangdong – said they expect their staff to work 12 hours a day.
Andy Boreham

Opinion has become divided in China this week after two billionaires — Alibaba’s Jack Ma and JD.com’s Liu Qiangdong — said they expect their staff to work 12 hours a day. Their comments came after the rise in popularity of a new term, 996, which means “9am to 9pm, six days a week.” But the people clapped back, and at least one billionaire has been forced to tone it down. 

Ma, co-founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, is currently worth nearly US$40 billion. He’s one of China’s richest men. That probably helped leave a sour taste in people’s mouths when he said last week that his employees must do overtime, and that overtime makes people happy. “Otherwise, why come to Alibaba? We don’t want people who only work for a comfortable eight hours,” he said.

JD.com’s Liu joined in, saying that he worked even longer hours when he first started the company, which hires about 157,830 and was listed by Forbes as one of the best places to work in the world last year. 

“During the time I started my business, I slept on the floor of my office for four years to save money,” Liu said. 

“I never slept for more than two consecutive hours at a time. That’s how JD.com could survive and become the giant it is now. We need people who can shoulder responsibilities to make JD.com better, and the country stronger, to work with here.”

Ma later toned it down after a counter-movement, 955 — 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday — gained ground. Ma said that he hopes his employees are happy.

What both of these billionaires fail to understand is that they founded and head these huge companies, they are not merely employees. Because of this, they stand to gain (and lose) much more. Of course, huge hours and personal sacrifices need to be made to achieve the levels of success they have attained, but not everyone is built for that and not everyone even wants that. Some of us are happy to turn up to work, perform our required duties, and then go and live the rest of our lives until work time comes around again.

The level of work Ma and Liu seem to want from their employees better involve shares in the company and a tidy profit when things go well. (I’ve heard some startup companies do offer shares after four years of employment.) On top of that, if your company model requires staff to constantly work overtime then something is broken, and you really need to fix it as soon as possible.

China’s Labor Law says employers can ask employees to work up to three hours’ overtime a day, but only up to a maximum of 36 hours a month. And, of course, staff are well within their rights to say no. Technically. 

I’m definitely for work-life balance, and to be honest, I have grown a distinct dislike for Ma after his recent comments.

Back home in my native New Zealand, a woman was recently awarded NZ$45,000 (US$30,420) in damages from her employer after he called her up to 10 times a day over weekends and expected her to be available to answer his calls on evenings, public holidays and while she was on leave. She said it led her to have a “complete meltdown.” 

I can definitely see how that would affect someone’s serenity and personal life. When it comes to myself, I often agree to working overtime — particularly over weekends — if it’s required, but I always insist that it’s paid fairly and that I can keep my work-life balance right. That includes being able to work from home. I’m also extremely keen to work over Chinese holidays, since I wouldn’t dare go traveling at those times anyway, and then I can receive days in lieu and go traveling other times of the year. It’s a win-win, and it should be.

We all know the old saying, and it’s really fitting here: Work to live, don’t live to work.

Special Reports