Elon Musk praises Chinese workers for ‘burning the 3 o’clock oil’ – this is what it really looks like | Elon Musk

Elon Musk praises Chinese workers for ‘burning the 3 o’clock oil’ – this is what it really looks like |  Elon Musk

How do you become the richest man in the world? In the case of Elon Musk, part of this is getting workers in China to work hours that would be unacceptable under labor norms elsewhere.

On Tuesday, the Tesla boss praised Chinese factory workers for enduring extreme hours while shooting at American workers. “There’s just a lot of super-talented, hard-working people in China who really believe in manufacturing,” the billionaire said. “Not only will they burn the midnight oil, they will burn the 3 o’clock oil, they won’t even leave the factory while the people of America try not to go to work at all.”

Musk’s comment comes as Tesla’s massive “giga-factory” in Shanghai is pushing its workers to the limit to meet production targets amid an ongoing pandemic lockdown there.

In April, Tesla banned its workers in Shanghai from leaving the factory under a so-called “closed-loop” system originally devised by Chinese authorities to contain participants in the Beijing Olympics. While incarcerated, the workers were reportedly forced to work 12-hour shifts, six days straight, while sleeping on factory floors. Production at the plant had to be halted 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 earning as little as $1,500 a month in what an investigation by local journalists dubbed a “giga sweatshop.”

Even in the United States, Musk is known for his disregard for labor norms and work-life balance: the tech billionaire infamously declared, “No one ever changed the world working 40 hours a week.” He has boasted 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 1 a.m.

These practices are consistent with China’s extreme work culture, nicknamed “996,” where workers are expected to work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. This practice has been the subject of protests in recent years and has been characterized as a form of modern day slavery.

Workers walk in front of Tesla Gigafactory in Shanghai, China, November 2019.
Workers walk in front of Tesla Gigafactory in Shanghai, China, November 2019. Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Eli Friedman, 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 companies taking advantage not only of China’s low labor costs, but also its 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 assembly line,” Friedman said.

“It’s kind of an orientalist narrative about these kinds of Chinese robot workers who [Musk] says in a kind of exaggerated way that this is a good thing,” the researcher added.

Officially, Chinese labor law prescribes a 40-hour week, with employees being allowed up to 36 hours of overtime per month – which would correspond to a 48-hour week. But that’s not what happens in practice.

“There’s no pretense anywhere that this will be enforced,” Friedman said. “Excessive overtime is a kind of built-in feature of the whole industrial development model in China. Very long hours and mandatory overtime, while not legal, are completely the norm. And this is regularly done in consultation with local governments, who are also tasked with enforcing labor laws.”

Employees in China are often required to sign a Striver’s Pledge, which waives their right to overtime pay and paid time off. And while many companies in China have unions, unions are employer-funded, making them essentially powerless to bargain against management, Friedman noted.

Tesla didn’t respond to questions about its factory’s hours and policies.

China’s grueling culture of extreme working hours has been hailed by tech billionaires in the country, including Alibaba’s Jack Ma, who called the “996” system a “great boon” and Richard Liu of rival firm JD.com, who called out workers who lazybones work fewer hours.

A growing anti-overwork movement by Chinese workers has arisen in recent years, 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 intensified last January after a 22-year-old worker at Shanghai-based e-commerce firm Pinduoduo collapsed and died after leaving work at 1:30 a.m. after a series of brutally long shifts had left.

Incidents like these helped fuel a trend among young Chinese social media users early last year touting “tang ping,” or “lie flat on the floor,” as a passive protest against the work that has since circulated across the Chinese internet is restricted. Later in the 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 be a regular occurrence 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 detailed the conflicts that ensued after a Chinese billionaire, Cao Dewang, opened a factory in 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 them.”

Last week, The Wall Street Journal revealed that some of the US-based employees of the Chinese-owned TikTok were expected to work back-to-back nights and spend up to 85 hours a week in meetings to keep up with their Chinese Colleagues.

In the United States, workers covered by the federal Fair Labor Standards Act must receive overtime pay if they work more than 40 hours per week. However, the law does not impose a cap on the number of hours an employee can work.

The grim background to Musk’s comments is that “unfortunately, American workers are also in a very oppressed position,” Friedman said.

“The by no means subtle threat is that these Chinese workers pose a threat to you white American workers. If you don’t meet that standard, your jobs are at stake.”

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