How do you become the richest man in the world? In Elon Musk’s case, part of it involves making workers in China put in hours that would be unacceptable according to labor norms elsewhere.
On Tuesday, the Tesla boss praised Chinese factory workers for pulling extreme hours while taking a shot at American workers. “There is just a lot of super talented hardworking people in China who strongly believe in manufacturing,” the billionaire said. “They won’t just be burning the midnight oil, they will be burning the 3am oil, they won’t even leave the factory type of thing, whereas in America people are trying to avoid going to work at all.”
Musk’s comment comes as Tesla’s massive Shanghai “Giga-factory” pushes its workers to the limit to meet production targets amid an ongoing pandemic lockdown there.
In April, Tesla restricted its Shanghai workers from leaving the factory under a so-called “closed-loop” system originally developed by Chinese authorities to contain Beijing Olympics participants. While locked inside, the workers were reportedly made to work 12-hour shifts, six days in a row while sleeping on factory floors. Production at the plant was forced to halt this week due to parts shortages, the company said.
Labor rights and safety violations have been reported at Tesla’s Shanghai factory since it opened in 2018, with some workers making as little as $1,500 a month in what an investigation by local journalists dubbed the “Giga-sweatshop.”
Even in the United States, Musk is well known for his disregard for labor norms and work-life balance: the tech billionaire infamously declared “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”. He has bragged about making Tesla’s US employees work 100-hour weeks, while claiming to have worked 120-hour weeks himself. In March, Musk called an all-hands meeting for his other company, SpaceX at 1am.
These practices are on par with China’s extreme work culture, nicknamed “996” in which workers are expected to work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. The practice has been the source of protests in recent years and has been characterized as a form of modern slavery.
Eli Friedman, a China labor expert and associate professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University’s ILR School, said Musk’s remark should be understood in the “broader context of American corporations taking advantage not just of the low cost of labor in China, but the flexibility.”
For bosses like Musk, “that’s the comparative advantage: the fact that you have hundreds of thousands of workers that you can literally wake up in the middle of the night and put them on the production line,” Friedman said.
“It’s kind of tapping into a kind of Orientalist narrative about these kind of robotic Chinese workers who, [Musk] says in a sort of valorized way, that this is 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 a month – which would come out to just over a 48-hour work week. But that’s not what happens in practice.
“There’s no pretence anywhere that that’s enforced,” said Friedman. “Excessive overtime is kind of a built-in feature of the whole model of industrial development in China. Very long hours and compulsory overtime, while not legal, are also completely the norm. And this is done regularly in consultation with local governments who are also tasked with enforcing the labor law.”
Employees in China are often asked to sign a “striver’s pledge” which waives their right to overtime pay and paid time off. And while many corporations in China have unions, the unions are funded by the employer, which makes them essentially powerless to negotiate against management, Friedman noted.
Tesla did not respond to questions about its factory’s work hours and policies.
China’s gruelling culture of extreme hours has been celebrated by tech billionaires in the country, including Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who has called the “996” system a “huge blessing,” and rival company JD.com’s Richard Liu, who has called workers who work fewer hours “slackers”.
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 for Shanghai-based e-commerce firm Pinduoduo collapsed and died after leaving work at 1.30am, after a run of brutally long shifts.
Incidents like these helped fuel a trend among young Chinese social media users early last year promoting “tang ping”, or “lying flat” on the ground as a passive protest against work, which has since been restricted on the Chinese internet. Later in the year, China’s top court ruled that forced and excessive overtime was illegal, but the ruling has not been well enforced. Work stoppages, often unofficial “wildcat” strikes, continue to occur regularly in China.
Chinese and American labor norms have clashed in recent years, as bosses pit teams against each other.
The 2019 Netflix documentary “American Factory” described the conflicts that arose after a Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, opened a factory in an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio. “American workers are not efficient, and output is low,” Cao complained at one point in the film. “I can’t manage them.”
Last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that some of the US-based employees at Chinese-owned TikTok were expected to pull back-to-back all-nighters and spend as many as 85 hours a week in meetings to keep up with their Chinese colleagues.
In the United States, employees covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act must receive overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week. But the law places no cap on the number of hours an employee can work.
The grim backdrop to Musk’s comments is that “American workers are in a very subjugated position as well, unfortunately”, said Friedman.
“The not-at-all subtle threat is that these Chinese workers are a threat to you white American workers. If you don’t meet that standard, then your jobs are on the line.”