Transforming workers into spenders: Chinese cities call for longer weekends 把员工转变为消费者：周末延长政策将何去何从？
By Phyllis Brown 铠凌
NANJING, CHINA — When French director Chris Marker released the classic short film “Sunday in Peking” in 1956, the concept of a weekend was still alien to China. Since urban workers only had Sundays off, households often pitted against time to complete errands that had accumulated all week. Likewise, a rest day from work was seldom guaranteed for farmers back then. As late as 1993, China continued to promote six-day work weeks to maximize output for development. In 1994, it experimented with “odd-even” weeks that alternated between five- and six-day work weeks, before finally popularizing full weekends in 1995.
A scene from Chris Marker’s Sunday in Peking (1956). The short documentary film features various groups engaging in activities with their work unit on a typical Sunday, decades before the two-day weekend was introduced in 1994. Photo credit: Bilibili
State attitudes towards the weekend shifted again in 2015. Since then, China has been encouraging government agencies and businesses to adopt “2.5-day weekends,” a concept that has gained traction amongst OECD countries only in the 21st century. Under the new arrangement, employees finish work at noon on Fridays, but total working hours remain unchanged. Similar to how Chinese schools and workplaces sometimes operate on weekends to “make up” for a recent holiday, the proposed arrangement lets firms “recoup“ Friday’s half-day off by extending work hours on other weekdays.
In August 2015, the tourism department of Ningxiang city in Hunan Province became the first Chinese locality to implement longer weekends in the summer. More recently, the Nanjing city government released guidelines calling for the 2.5-day weekend to take effect in April 2020. Authorities envisioned that longer weekends would accelerate economic recovery by bolstering consumption and domestic tourism. While absent from official rhetoric, such pro-leisure guidelines also implicitly recognize that work-life balance should be pursued and celebrated.
But despite the government’s enthusiasm, Nanjing locals still reported no changes in the workplace after six months. The fact that official recommendations have gone unheeded is neither new nor surprising; this phenomenon is quite common in China, notwithstanding the misconception that Chinese society is singular and monolithic. However, the policy’s developments — or lack thereof — remain meaningful, for they draw attention to policymakers’ detachment from the ground realities of the labor market. Until authorities and firms are seen to uphold existing labor rights and practices, longer weekends will remain a far-fetched ideal.
On one hand, adopting 2.5-day weekends could seem appealing, especially amongst employees, and given its potential to drive consumption as intended. The status quo discourages many employees from traveling and consuming during public holidays, because they stand to earn attractive bonus pay by forgoing vacation. Douglas, a Chinese student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center who works at a Shanghai-based multinational firm, volunteered to work through China’s Golden Week holiday because his employer tripled the base pay over the break.
If granted longer weekends, some young working adults would plan more vacations in nearby cities and pursue their hobbies. Indeed, longer weekends have also shown to improve work performance and well-being. Tianyu, an analyst for a Shanghai-based hedge fund, thinks people tend to reach an unrewarding lull as the week draws on. In his view, employees are more productive working extra hours earlier in the week, and leaving the office on Friday afternoons. But Ms. Cheng, a university lecturer in Nanjing, thinks only certain employees, namely those with heavy caregiving responsibilities, would benefit substantially from the arrangement.
Personal circumstances aside, the type of industry and job scope can determine whether the long weekend policy is feasible. For most workers, freeing up a Friday afternoon is simply impossible. The 2.5-day weekend concept assumes 40-hour work weeks, but in reality, 40% of the working population already spends over 50 hours at work, beyond the legally-established limit of 44 hours. The arduous schedules of delivery drivers are particularly noteworthy: as informal workers, they are often denied overtime compensation and social insurance.
China’s internet companies have also been criticized by state media and employees for championing an unsustainable “996” work schedule: 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Overworked tech employees are now finding it even harder to catch a break as the COVID-19 pandemic has driven up China’s reliance on internet companies’ remote services. Nevertheless, Yaoyao, a product manager for an internet company in Hangzhou, thinks long hours are here to stay insofar as industry competition remains intense, and the need to overcome China’s middle-income trap endures.
Amongst industries not known for their long hours, the 2.5-day weekend is likely to face similar resistance from employers. As it stands, only state-owned enterprises and government agencies, which are less concerned than private companies about labor costs and business rivals, have been willing and able to implement longer weekends. Ms. Guo, a business owner in the services industry, is largely skeptical of the policy on several grounds. She questions whether longer weekends would indeed trigger large spikes in consumption in the same way the Golden Week holiday generates tens of billions each year for the tourism industry. Given longer weekends, her employees are more likely to find additional part-time work. “Most people who plan on travelling don’t need the job to begin with, they can quit their jobs to travel…[it’s] better to let the market run its course”, she said. Indeed, growth in consumption would be mostly driven by individuals already affluent enough to work less.
Ms. Guo is equally concerned about the impact 2.5-day weekends would have on productivity, since employees might not show up on certain Fridays at all. To illustrate, if a public holiday fell on Monday or Thursday, she believes employees would find excuses to be away on Friday, so as to enjoy a long, uninterrupted vacation. A four-day work week, she argues, is “tantamount to an internship” where not much can be accomplished. If made mandatory, longer weekends would further incentivize employers to hire part-timers wherever possible, with implications for China’s social safety net, Ms. Guo said. Substantively, hiring part-timers gives firms more leeway to avert the social security contributions payable to a national pension system that is already feeling the heat from slowing growth and an aging population.
But as a younger generation of workers clamors for self-fulfillment and pushes back on the current work culture, might certain industries attempt to introduce longer weekends in the future? Sijie, a former paralegal in Shanghai, foresees that the gradual adoption of the 2.5-day weekend would follow a trajectory similar to China’s adoption of the two-day weekend: when government agencies pioneered two-day weekends in 1995, private firms followed suit by abandoning the “odd-even week” arrangement. The two issues may not be equivalent, though. Back then, companies were incentivized to make changes following problems associated with odd-even weeks (e.g., it was common for employees to show up on the wrong Saturday as people lost track of dates). No comparable incentive is present today. The appropriateness of public agencies enjoying longer weekends is controversial too, especially whilst small businesses are struggling to merely survive 2020. “Public employees are supposed to serve the people, so how could they be working less than everyone else? … Frontline public agencies, if anything, should be opened daily to facilitate citizens’ access to services,” said Ms. Guo.
In October 2020, the hashtags “did you quit your job at the bank today?” and “young people fleeing from banks” trended on Chinese social media, with the former receiving over 860 million views. Younger bank employees and fresh graduates cite excessive overtime and lack of job fulfilment as reasons for abandoning what was once a highly-coveted career. Photo credit: QQ
Nevertheless, most interviewees conclude that the 2.5-day weekend is a well-meaning, albeit anachronistic solution to boosting consumption. Sijie and Yaoyao stress that authorities should instead strengthen compliance with existing labor regulations. For instance, local governments could better ensure start-ups have appropriate overtime compensation schemes in place, and guarantee at least one rest day per week.
Enforcing these policies is by no means easy, given hiring freezes in certain industries, an increasingly competitive job market that favors employers, and a work culture that tends to equate presenteeism with diligence. Nevertheless, mediating the unequal power relations that exist between employers and employees remains worth pursuing. Full implementation of existing labor policies could deliver far-reaching benefits to workers and the economy. Authorities may find that workers become spenders when their welfare is prioritized.