Labor Day is not the holiday it used to be for Chinese workers

Labor Day is not the holiday it used to be for Chinese workers

Like hundreds of millions of workers in China, Hao Zeyu, an algorithm engineer at an electric vehicle maker, got five days off this week for the Labor Day holiday. But he was in no mood to party.

For vacation, Hao is required to work an extra day each weekend immediately before and after the break.

To add insult to injury, two of the official holidays fall on Saturday and Sunday. This means that only one of those five days counts as a genuine holiday.

The practice of moving weekdays to weekends to create longer vacations during major Chinese holidays is known as “tiaoxiu” or adjusted rest. Introduced in 1999 to stimulate consumer spending in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, it has been the subject of online outrage in the weeks leading up to this year’s May 1 holiday.

“I really don’t like it,” Hao told CNN. “I think this policy is meant to encourage consumption at a certain stage of the country’s development, but I don’t support it anymore,” he said.

So why is a decades-old policy causing so much frustration in a country whose Communist Party leadership pays annual tribute to International Workers’ Day?

Workers say the post-Covid downturn in the world’s second-biggest economy means they increasingly fear losing their jobs if they dare ask for extra time off beyond the officially sanctioned leave – which they previously felt comfortable doing.

And they say they are being asked to work harder than ever as their employers try to do more with fewer resources as economic woes – the real estate crisis, slumping foreign investment and tepid consumption – pile up.

Trending topics
In recent weeks, complaints about the arrangement of this year’s Labor Day holiday have exploded on Chinese social media. Many criticized the government for prioritizing business over something they desperately need, which is real rest.

People have expressed their frustration under the hashtags “you shouldn’t pretend not to listen to voices opposing tiaoxiu’s policy” and “tiaoxiu’s policy for May Day,” which have collectively attracted more than 560 million views combined.

One user wrote the online discussion was not just a policy debate, it was the embodiment of “physical and mental exhaustion caused by crazy overtime.”

“What we crave is a much-needed effective break from overwork,” the person added.

Another wrote on social media platform Weibo that they “wanted more holidays without changing the situation to get the long leave.”

“Who would be in the mood to spend money if they didn’t have a (real) holiday?” the person wrote.

To make matters worse, “planned” vacations often result in scrambles for hard-to-get train tickets, inflated hotel deals and chaos at popular tourist spots, Hao told CNN.

Labor Day isn’t the only holiday to get an adjusted rest policy.

Authorities also rearranged work days around the Spring Festival, which is celebrated in January or February, and National Day, which takes place on October 1, to create a seven-day break known as “Golden Week.”

Work harder
Christian Yao, a senior lecturer at the University of Wellington, said China’s economy was “in the middle of a very turbulent year” as it sought to transform itself from a manufacturing powerhouse to a knowledge-based economy.
He said workers are starting to question where the country is headed. The slowing economy has, in turn, put pressure on companies to increase their productivity while cutting costs.

“Employees are forced to work harder, fearing losing their jobs and at the same time fearing whether finding another job will offer them a better salary,” he said.

While some workers are accustomed to working long hours under China’s “996” work culture — the practice of working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week common among tech companies, startups and other private businesses in the country — others are now reluctant accept a coordinated work policy, Yao said.

With that policy, China can designate more than 25 days as official holidays. Without the maneuver though, workers get 11 days, which is still in line with many other countries. The United States, for example, offers 11 federal holidays while the United Kingdom has eight.

But the problem for Chinese workers is that their statutory paid time off (PTO), or annual leave, is only five days a year, which is far less than ban other countries

When times are good, Chinese companies are more generous in giving those PTO days. But it’s a different story during an economic slowdown.

Max Teng, a business analyst in the internet industry, told CNN that he used to work for a foreign company. But actually it’s not better, he said.

“If you take a long vacation, everyone will have negative feedback for you. So many do not dare to take leave even if it is offered,” he said.

Exceptions to the rule
Few companies do things their own way. Yaer Tuerdi, 26, works in the marketing department of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is operated by fast food giant Yum China (YUMC).

Yum China does not require workers to come in during the two designated “special working days”.

“I love it,” Tuerdi said. “You can manage your breaks freely … If you want to travel, you can take annual leave to make up the gap. If you don’t want to travel, you can still take two days off at the weekend.”

A movement in independent business circles is pushing back against the obsession with excessive working hours. Among the more prominent supporters is Pang Dong Lai, a supermarket chain known for its customer service based in the central province of Henan.

In March, its founder and chairman Yu Donglai announced that he was offering 10 days a year of “sadness leave” for workers who were unhappy at work, state media People’s Daily reported.

“Everyone is bound to feel sad from time to time and if they can let go of this sadness, they might feel good again,” he was quoted as saying. The manager, Yu added, cannot refuse the leave request.

He has become one of the rare advocates of work-life balance in a culture that values “eating grit,” or enduring adversity to succeed, and often speaks at business forums to preach his beliefs.

CNN has reached out to the supermarket chain to ask about its Labor Day plans.

As for Teng, he has to work on May 11, a Saturday, as part of his regular holiday arrangements.

“I feel very stressed because I have to work at least six days in a row,” he said.

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