How to become the richest man in the world? In Elon Musk’s case, part of it involves making workers in China work hours that are not acceptable by labor standards elsewhere.
On Tuesday, the Tesla boss praised Chinese factory workers for pulling long hours while shooting American workers. “There are a lot of super talented hard-working people in China who believe strongly in industrialization,” the billionaire said. “They will not only burn midnight oil, they will burn oil at three in the morning, and they will not even leave some kind of factory, while in America people try to avoid going to work at all.”
Musk’s comment comes as Tesla’s massive Shanghai plant is pushing its workers to the limit to meet production targets amid the ongoing pandemic shutdown.
In April, Tesla restricted its workers in Shanghai from leaving the factory under the so-called “closed-loop” system developed by Chinese authorities to contain participants in the Beijing Olympics. While locked inside, workers were reportedly forced to work 12-hour shifts, six consecutive days, and sleep on factory floors. The company said production at the plant was forced to halt this week due to a shortage of parts.
Worker rights and safety violations have been reported at Tesla’s Shanghai plant since it opened in 2018, with some workers earning less than $1,500 a month in what an investigation by local journalists called a “Giga-sweatshop”.
Even in the US, Musk is notorious for disregarding work-life standards and work-life balance: the tech billionaire declared, “Nobody has ever changed the world in 40 hours a week.” He bragged about making American Tesla employees work 100 hours a week, while claiming he worked 120 hours a week himself. In March, Musk called a mass meeting of his other company, SpaceX, at 1 a.m.
These practices dovetail with China’s extreme work culture, nicknamed “996,” where workers are expected to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. This practice has been the source of protests in recent years and has been described as a form of modern slavery.
Eli Friedman, a China labor expert and associate professor of international and comparative labor at ILR College at Cornell University, said Musk’s observation should be understood in “the broader context of US companies that benefit not only from the low cost of labor in China, but also flexibility.”
For bosses like Musk, “that’s the comparative advantage: the fact that you have millions of thousands of workers you can literally get up in the middle of the night and put them on the production line,” Friedman said.
“It exploits a kind of orientalist narrative about the kind of robotic Chinese workers who, [Musk] Somehow value says, that’s a good thing,” the researcher added.
Officially, Chinese labor law mandates a 40-hour work week, with employees allowed up to 36 hours of overtime per month — just over 48 hours a week. But this is not what happens in practice.
“There is no claim anywhere it is being applied,” Friedman said. “Excessive overtime is a kind of feature built into the whole model of China’s industrial development. Extremely long working hours and mandatory overtime, while not legal, are also quite the norm. This is done regularly in consultation with local governments who are also tasked with labor law enforcement.”
Employees in China are often required to sign a “militant pledge” that waives their right to overtime pay and paid time off. Friedman noted that while many companies in China have unions, unions are funded by the employer, leaving them essentially unable to negotiate against management.
Tesla did not respond to questions about factory hours and policies.
China’s tech billionaires celebrated China’s tough hour culture, including Jack Ma of Alibaba, who called the “996” system a “big boon,” and Richard Liu of rival JD.com, who called for workers to work fewer hours. “The Dodgers”.
In recent years, a growing movement of Chinese workers has stood up to oppose overwork, with some activists using tools like GitHub to compile lists of Chinese companies accused of violating labor laws. Anger over the country’s extreme work culture intensified last January after a 22-year-old worker at Shanghai-based e-commerce company Pinduoduo collapsed and died after leaving work at 1.30am, after a series of brutal long shifts.
Incidents like this helped spur a trend among young Chinese social media users early last year to promote “tangping,” or “lying down” as a negative protest against work, which has since been restricted to the Chinese internet. Later in the year, China’s Supreme Court ruled that forced and excessive overtime was illegal, but the ruling was not well implemented. Work stoppages, often unofficial ‘unofficial’ strikes, continue to be regular in China.
Chinese and American labor standards have clashed in recent years, with bosses competing with each other.
The 2019 Netflix documentary American Factory described the struggles that arose after Chinese billionaire Cao Dewang opened a factory at an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio. “American workers are not efficient and production is low,” Cao complained at one point in the film. “I can’t manage it.”
Last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that some US-based employees of Chinese-owned TikTok are expected to quit overnight and spend up to 85 hours a week in meetings to keep up with the Chinese. colleagues.
In the United States, employees covered by the Federal Labor Standards Act must receive overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week. But the law does not set a maximum number of hours an employee can work.
The bleak background to Musk’s comments, Friedman said, is that “American workers are also in a very oppressive position, unfortunately.”
“The absolutely not hidden threat is that these Chinese workers are a threat to you white American workers. If you don’t meet this standard, your jobs are at stake.”