Elon Musk praises Chinese workers for ‘burning 3 a.m. oil’ – here’s what it really looks like
How do you become the richest man in the world? In Elon Musk’s case, part of it is getting Chinese workers to work hours that would be unacceptable by labor standards elsewhere.
On Tuesday, the Tesla boss praised Chinese workers for working extreme hours while shooting American workers. “There are just a lot of super talented, hard-working people in China who strongly believe in manufacturing,” the billionaire said. “They won’t just burn the midnight oil, they’ll burn the 3 a.m. oil, they won’t even leave the factory, when in America people try to avoid going to work at all .”
Musk’s comment comes as Tesla’s massive “Giga-factory” in Shanghai pushes its workers to the limit to meet production targets under an ongoing pandemic lockdown.
In April, Tesla banned its Shanghai employees from leaving the factory under a so-called “closed loop” system originally developed by Chinese authorities to contain participants in the Beijing Olympics. While locked inside, the workers were reportedly forced to work 12-hour shifts for six days in a row and sleep on the factory floors. Production at the factory was forced to halt this week due to a shortage of parts, the company said.
Labor rights and safety abuses have been reported at Tesla’s Shanghai factory since it opened in 2018, with some workers earning just $1,500 a month in what an investigation by local journalists called the “Giga-sweatshop”.
Even in the United States, Musk is well known for his disregard for work standards and work-life balance: the tech billionaire has sadly declared that “no one has ever changed the world in 40 hours per week”. He bragged about making American Tesla employees work 100 hours a week, while claiming to have worked 120 hours a week himself. In March, Musk called a general meeting for his other company, SpaceX, at 1 a.m.
These practices are comparable to China’s extreme work culture, dubbed “996,” in which 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 characterized as a form of modern slavery.
Eli Friedman, China labor expert and associate professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University’s ILR School, said Musk’s remark must be understood in the “wider context of corporate America not only profiting from the low labor cost in China, but also flexibility”.
For bosses like Musk, “it’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 tapping into a kind of Orientalist narrative about these kinds of Chinese robotic workers who, [Musk] says in a sort of valued way, that’s a good thing,” the researcher added.
Officially, Chinese labor law mandates a 40-hour work week, with employees allowed to work up to 36 hours of overtime per month, which would amount to just over a 48-hour work week. But this is not what happens in practice.
“There’s no pretense anywhere that this is enforced,” Friedman said. “Excessive overtime is sort of an integrated feature of the whole industrial development pattern in China. Very long hours and compulsory overtime, although not legal, are also completely the norm. And this is done regularly in consultation with local governments who are also responsible for enforcing labor laws.
Employees in China are often asked to sign an “Effort Pledge” that waives their right to overtime pay and vacation pay. And while many companies in China have unions, unions are funded by the employer, making them essentially powerless to bargain against management, Friedman noted.
Tesla did not respond to questions about working hours and policies at its factory.
China’s grueling culture of extreme hours has been celebrated by tech billionaires in the country, including Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who called the “996” system a “huge blessing”, and Richard Liu of the rival company JD.com, which called workers who work fewer hours “lazy.”
In recent years, a growing movement of Chinese workers has risen to oppose overwork, with some activists using tools like GitHub to compile lists of Chinese companies accused of violating labor laws. Anger at the country’s extreme work culture escalated last January after a 22-year-old worker at Shanghai-based e-commerce company Pinduoduo collapsed and died after leaving work at 1:30 a.m. morning, after a series of brutally long shifts.
Incidents like these helped spark a trend among young Chinese social media users early last year to promote “tang ping”, or “lying flat” on the ground as a passive protest against the work, which has since been restricted on the Chinese internet. Later that year, China’s top court ruled that forced and excessive overtime was illegal, but the ruling was not well enforced. Work stoppages, often unofficial “wildcat” strikes, continue to occur regularly in China.
Chinese and American labor standards have clashed in recent years, as bosses pit teams against each other.
The 2019 Netflix documentary “American Factory” describes the conflicts that erupted after a Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, opened a factory in an abandoned General Motors plant in Ohio. “American workers are inefficient and production is low,” Cao complained at one point in the film. “I can’t handle them.”
Last week, the Wall Street Journal revealed that some of the US-based employees of Chinese-owned TikTok had to put in back-to-back sleepless nights and spend up to 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 per week. But the law does not limit the number of hours an employee can work.
The grim backdrop to Musk’s comments is that “American workers are also in a very subjugated position, unfortunately,” Friedman said.
“The not at all subtle threat is that these Chinese workers are a threat to you white American workers. If you fail to meet this standard, your jobs are at stake.”
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