Worker Deaths Put Big Tech under scrutiny in China
The deaths of two young workers of the e-commerce company Pinduoduo have rekindled long-standing fears about the working conditions of internet giants.
The time was 1:30 a.m. Just days before the new year, and after a long day of work, a 22-year-old employee of Pinduoduo, a Chinese e-commerce firm, quit. Suddenly, she clutched her stomach and collapsed. She was rushed to the hospital by her colleagues, but six hours later, she died.
Less than two weeks later, during a brief visit to his parents, the young Pinduoduo worker jumped to his death. A third employee said the next day that he had been fired after questioning the work culture of Pinduoduo.
A delivery driver for another technology firm set himself on fire the day after that, demanding unpaid wages. I want my money from blood and sweat," he said in a video widely shared in recent weeks on Chinese social media."
At a time when internet giants around the world are under fierce scrutiny, the string of deaths and demonstrations has reopened a national debate about the influence of China's biggest technology firms and the demands they place on their workers.
Users called for Pinduoduo, one of China's largest online shopping sites, to be boycotted. An inquiry into its working conditions was announced by the authorities in Shanghai, where the company is headquartered. The firm is no longer co-sponsoring the Lunar New Year gala of the state broadcaster, China's most-watched television program.
Pinduoduo said it would provide psychological therapy to employees in statements. A screenshot of a message that it said was from the father of the female employee who died was also released, thanking the organization for its support. A spokesperson for Pinduoduo declined to comment further.
The businesses they once held up as icons of China's increasing superpower status have started to turn on both the government and ordinary people. Recently, Chinese officials declared an antitrust inquiry into Alibaba. Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of the e-commerce company, has become a favorite villain online. The much-anticipated initial public offering of Ant Group, Alibaba's sister company, was unexpectedly halted by regulators.
The furor also points to wider fears about the ending of decades of almost endless economic promise. Despite China's rapid recovery from the coronavirus outbreak, many blue-collar employees are struggling. With long workdays, grim career opportunities and discontent with the rat race, young white-collar workers have become increasingly outspoken.
Lyu Xiaolin, an employee at a big Chinese tech firm, said she had spoken extensively with colleagues about the Pinduoduo deaths, who agreed that the definition of intolerable job pressure sounded too familiar.
"That was a terrible conclusion, and we have to cherish our own lives," she said. "In the future, we should make sure to leave work earlier."
In her business, she herself had changed roles, which she did not want to identify for fear of retribution, since her previous job sometimes forced her to work at night until 11 or 12, sometimes even 3 a.m. To relieve the emotional pressure, she pursued counseling.
In recent years, China's hypercompetitive work culture, especially in the tech world, has been a frequent source of concern and criticism. While many once praised the mentality of growth at all costs as an engine for the development of China, young workers have increasingly complained about the cost to their health and personal relationships.
When rank-and-file tech employees coordinated a rare online protest against what is widely known as "996" culture, working days stretching from 9 a.m., the anger erupted prominently in 2019. Six days a week, until 9 p.m., and raised awareness of China's labor law, which typically forbids working days of more than eight hours without overtime pay. But businesses argue that long hours are voluntary, and the authorities have suppressed many of the movement's debates, wary of any unauthorized mobilization. The Web has moved on.
The topic exploded anew.
An anonymous user on Maimai, a professional networking site, wrote on Jan. 3 that a friend had died suddenly at Pinduoduo and blamed the company. The post gained momentum, and Pinduoduo reported that on her way home, an employee surnamed Zhang died on Dec. 29.
The cause of death was not officially explained, but was attributed to overwork by many online. Users noticed that Ms. Zhang had been working on a new online grocery product heavily promoted by Pinduoduo, and that Colin Huang, the company's chief executive, had just been appointed the second-richest individual in China.
As Pinduoduo seemed to ignore Ms. Zhang's death, indignation mushroomed further. Who didn't trade their lives for cash? "said a post from an official social media account of Pinduoduo on Jan. 4.
The post was removed easily. The company said screenshots were false, then backtracked and blamed a contractor.
Then, on Jan. 9, Pinduoduo reported that, while visiting his parents, a second worker, known by the surname Tan, had jumped from a house, although no reason was publicly given. A former Pinduoduo engineer who uses the screen name Wang Taixu posted a video on Weibo the next day, alleging that he was fired after posting an ambulance picture outside his office. His caption indicated the fall of yet another colleague.
He said in the video, which has been viewed more than 64 million times, "Maybe I'm still student-like and have not learned to be a professional who hides my thoughts and protects myself." "But I don't think the world ought to be this way."
Pinduoduo stated in a statement that the video had been uploaded by a former employee surnamed Wang. It claimed that he was fired not for the ambulance photo, but for other "extreme statements" that he had made criticising the company online.
Social media dominated discussions around' 996' or even more dramatic versions. A Weibo hashtag has been viewed more than 630 million times about Ms. Zhang's death alone. Even Xinhua, the state's official news agency, interviewed Mr. Wang, condemning the "distorted culture of overtime."
Chen Haoxiang, a recent Zhejiang Province college graduate who works in the tech industry, said he had uninstalled the app and written blog posts supporting labor rights for Pinduoduo.
He said he respected Mr. Wang because, while many criticised the aspirations of their employers privately, few dared to go public. (Mr. Chen said he had quit a job that needed 996 and was now working shorter hours at a company.)
How many people are willing to stand up when unfair things happen and actually happen to those around you or you yourself? "Asked him. "To help people draw the bottom line, we need laws."
He added that the issue of working conditions was not restricted to a particular sector or business. "For our entire society, this is a topic."
After Liu Jin, the delivery driver, set himself on fire, Ele.me, the food delivery company which he said had withheld his salaries, and Alibaba, its parent company, were accused of exploitation by Weibo users. They pointed to another driver from Ele.me who had died in December while making deliveries in Beijing.
Mr. Liu recovered, and later Ele.me said that the incident "saddened" him and would cover his medical expenses.
Overwork came under scrutiny again in recent days when a court in Shandong Province disclosed that an employee had been fired by a Shanghai property management company for taking unauthorized leave to attend the funeral of his father.
Suji Yan, the founder of a Shanghai cryptography company, said the pandemic made tech users understand their own dependency on a few big corporations and the business practices behind them. Not only on behalf of highly paying, highly trained programmers, but also to help lower-wage employees, this is building into wider pushback towards tech giants.
"In 2019, lots of people were arguing: 'Oh, you guys are really the elite class. The 24-year-old entrepreneur, who was closely involved with the anti-996 demonstrations in 2019, said that you should not ask for more. Today, people believe that "the fate of developers is linked to those delivery guys' destiny."
According to posts by recruiters or on job-seeking blogs, entry-level workers at Alibaba, Tencent and other major tech companies receive between $30,000 and $60,000. According to government figures, the average salary for a new college graduate in China in 2019 was approximately $10,000.
As even college graduates have been forced to take on gig jobs, the stresses of the post-epidemic job market have also helped create sympathy for lower-wage workers, said Zoe Zhao, who researches activism at the University of Pennsylvania in China's tech sector.
But the demand could also make it much more difficult for workers, given the concerns of unemployment, to implement substantive reform.
Ms. Lyu, the tech employee, said that hundreds more were ready to take the place of that employee for any employee who was tired of working conditions.
On the one side, the public screams that 996 is bad, and is rushing to get into these major tech firms at the same time," she said." "It's like a siege: people are trying to come in on the outside, and people are trying to get out on the inside."