Promoting well-rounded human development is the Communist Party of China’s basic strategy for addressing the principle contradiction facing Chinese society in the new era. From a Marxist theoretical perspective, “time” is the key element in achieving well-rounded human development. Marx distinguished between labor time and free time. He pointed out that free time is time for the individual’s well-rounded development. Saving labor time is equal to an increase in free time. Such savings not only means a reduction in the length of work, but also an overall improvement in the quality of work.
Quality of working time is a multidimensional concept, which emphasizes the comprehensive nature of evaluating and optimizing working time. Quality working time consists of at least three elements: moderate working hours, reasonable organization of working time, and sufficient autonomy in working time.
Reasonable working hours
In the past few years, the phenomenon of overtime work, typified by a “996” work culture [working from 9 am to 9 pm Monday to Saturday], has become a much-discussed social issue in China. Overtime work has become an issue, because it exceeds the reasonable limits of working hours, the social and legal limit, as well as the limits that one can accept voluntarily. The consequence is that an individual’s general physiological time and free time for self-development are severely limited, resulting in impaired health and limited development.
Therefore, limiting working hours and protecting workers’ basic rights and interests, in terms of time, is a basic requirement to improve the quality of their working hours. From practical perspectives, since its establishment in 1919, the International Labour Organization has advocated for a standard work schedule of 8 hours a day, and 40 hours a week, worldwide.
According to statistics, about 41% of countries around the world have established their own working hour systems in reference to this standard. The Chinese government has also established this through laws and regulations such as the Labor Law and the Provisions of the State Council on Working Hours of Workers and Staff.
However, there is still a certain degree of deviation between regulations and practice. According to a survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2020, urban workers’ average weekly working hours in China were 47 hours, and about 54% of workers worked more than 40 hours per week. Therefore, the establishment of working-hour regulations is only a starting point; implementation is a key step in improving the quality of working hours.
However, “moderate working hours” not only means limiting overtime work, but also points to the problem of underemployment. Underemployment—at the individual level—refers to a situation where workers actually work fewer hours than they would like to. In developing countries, a significant proportion of workers tend to work longer hours due to lower hourly wages, limited employment opportunities, and lower social security levels.
In China, according to data from the Xinyang Normal University’s “2019 China Work Environment Study,” about 54% of respondents want to work longer hours to earn more money.
The important message behind this is that optimizing workers’ working hours requires a combination of “restriction” and “expansion.” We not only need to implement relevant laws and regulations to strictly limit overtime work, but also need to create more job opportunities and guide workers to high-quality employment.
Sound working time arrangements
In addition to the length of working hours, how working hours are organized also affects the quality of working time. A reasonable organization of working time should have at least two characteristics: first, it is social, and second, sometimes it can be segregated from the workplace.
To start with, some sociologists argue that time is shaped by a social life, with different points in time having different social connotations. Such connotations are institutionalized in the form of clocks, calendars, and other scheduling devices, and form the general rhythms of social life. Hence, time is not only quantitative but also socially meaningful. The same working hours at different points in time have differentiated impacts on workers.
In reality, nonsocial working hours, either at night or on weekends, are common in the catering and service industries. The consequence of such arrangements is that workers become disconnected from social life, creating a work-centered state of life that is isolating and solitary. This greatly limits the scope for social interaction and reduces the possibilities for self-development from social interaction.
Taking into account the unique features of such business operations, there are two basic solutions: add more rest days between night shifts and ensure that workers have at least one regular weekend day off per week.
Secondly, with the support of modern information and communication technology, work from home has become possible, and work has begun to invade life on a large scale. As a result, “24-hour standby” has become the norm, the problem of “hidden overtime” has become more and more prominent, as greater work-life imbalance has emerged.
According to a survey conducted by Xinyang Normal University’s study, at least 35% of workers regularly answer work phone calls, send and receive emails, and respond to work messages after work hours. Separating out a reasonable work schedule requires a stricter demarcation of work-life boundaries and the exclusion of work from life as much as possible, so that workers can truly have free time to achieve well-rounded human development outside of work.
To this end, employers are required to plan and divide work tasks in advance and avoid arranging ad hoc emergency tasks. At the same time, workers must be more efficient, complete their work tasks within the working time, and avoid actively bringing work into their lives.
Autonomy over working time
According to Marx, the dichotomy between labor time and free time exists because labor under capitalism is not “voluntary but coerced.”
Therefore, the fundamental development of labor under socialism should promote the transformation of labor into an autonomous activity, the basic requirement of which is to give workers sufficient autonomy over their working time and increase their control over the labor process. Autonomy over working time can play the role of a pressure-reducing valve, helping workers adjust pressure in advance to avoid conflicts between life and work.
Meanwhile, it can play the role of “circuit breaker,” to break the strict dichotomy between working time and free time, weaken the forced nature of labor, allow workers to choose between work and life, and promote their self-development through work.
Paid annual leave is the most important empirical measure to enhance workers’ autonomy in their working time. China has institutionalized this through the Regulations on Paid Annual Leave for Employees.
However, according to survey data, about 45% of workplaces do not have such a system in place. The overall level of autonomy over working time among Chinese workers is low. In fact, increasing autonomy over working hours contributes to win-win results for both employers and employees. By adapting working hours to fit their personal characteristics, workers are able to meet their specific time needs and improve their work efficiency.
Therefore, in the context of harmonious labor relations, enhancing workers’ autonomy over working hours should be the most crucial focal point for improving the quality of their working hours.
From a global perspective, apart from paid annual leave, there are other specific measures to enhance autonomy over working time, such as staggered working hours (employees choosing their own working hours within a certain range), compressed working weeks (increasing daily working hours and reducing working days per week), and time banks (allowing workers to deposit and withdraw working hours within a certain period). These measures are effective in enhancing workers’ job satisfaction and efficiency, and can be used as a reference.
Li Zhong is from the School of Public Administration at Guizhou University.