Why Chinese workers are enduring an eight-day work week

January 4, 2013

People visit Shanghai's Nanjing Road during the January 2 holiday. (ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

Most Americans are probably looking forward to going home at the end of the day today for a well-earned weekend after the grueling three-day work week. That's not how new year's vacation works in China, though. As of this year, Chinese workers – who already tend to put in long hours – will have to "pay" for their Jan. 1 holiday by putting in an eight-day work week. Starting today.

The odd holiday schedule is all about economics. Chinese officials announced the official new rule just last month, explaining that workers would get Tuesday through Thursday off this week (but not Monday, December 31). As the L.A. Times explains, holidays in China tend to come in three-day blocks, "so that people can travel and spend," part of a deliberate effort to stimulate domestic spending.

But the government also wants people to keep working, which is why Chinese workers are paying for this holiday by putting in full days today, Saturday, and Sunday. Today, the first day of this resulting eight-day work week, "feels like some kind of uber-Monday," according to Chinese-American writer Kaiser Kuo.

As Bloomberg Businessweek points out, the new year's schedule is a bit weird, since the late announcement presumably made it difficult for many Chinese families to plan the sort of vacations and shopping trips that the government likely wanted to spur. Why not just give people Monday, Dec. 31, off work, instead of imposing this odd schedule? Alas, the policy is seemingly beyond reproach, Bruce Einhorn reports:

As with many policy decisions in China, though, there’s no way to question the bureaucrats’ reasoning. “Most baffling to everybody is how anyone who is human would make this decision,” says one entrepreneur in Beijing who asks to remain anonymous because Chinese officials, following reports by Bloomberg News and the New York Times about the fortunes of the country’s Communist elite, are more thin-skinned than usual about public criticism.  

Part of the reasoning might have to do with the impending Chinese New Year, which will come on Feb. 10. It's the country's biggest official holiday – often described to Americans as like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined – and has many workers leaving their posts for days or weeks at a time, particularly if they're young urban workers headed back to rural hometowns. The holiday can also have a big economic impact, particularly on the important manufacturing sector, where already-transient workers leave at high rates, often not bothering to return.

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