The sudden death of a 22-year-old female employee of e-commerce giant Pinduoduo has revived online furor about labor rights in the tech industry, and has prompted a government probe into the e-commerce giant. The employee reportedly collapsed suddenly while walking home from work at 1:30 a.m. with colleagues on December 29, and died hours later in the hospital. The news went viral online, where many suspected the death was caused by the “996” culture of overwork dominant in China’s tech industry, where employees are expected to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. At The South China Morning Post, Yujie Xue reports:
The story of Zhang’s death initially went viral on Monday after a person posted to Weibo saying her friend died at Pinduoduo. “She is only 23,” the post said, noting the age Zhang would have turned this year. “Why is no one willing to stand out and say something?”
While there is no evidence linking Zhang’s death to her long working hours, many netizens were quick to connect it to 996 culture. The concept has long been known among those who work in China’s fast-growing tech industries as a common but unofficial work schedule.
According to China’s Labour Law, employees are allowed to extend work hours by up to three hours for special reasons, but staff should not work more than 36 extra hours in a month. [Source]
Pinduoduo is known for a secretive culture of high pressure even relative to the rest of the overworked industry. Employees told the Financial Times that “a working week at the company could stretch even longer than the ‘996’ norm.”
As the story was making rounds online, a post on Pinduoduo’s official Zhihu account, responding to a popular question about the firm’s responsibility in the woman’s death, added significant fuel to the anger:
What do you think of the sudden death of a Pinduoduo employee after an overtime shift? How responsibility should Pinduoduo take?
Pinduoduo: Just take a look at those on the bottom rungs of society, is there one of them who isn’t trading life for money? I‘ve never thought of this as a problem with capitalism, but rather a problem with society. This is an era that requires you to devote your life to work. You may choose leisure, but you’ve got to be OK with the consequences. People can control how much effort they put in, we all can.
Pinduoduo later deleted the post and attempted to deny its authenticity. After Zhihu posted its own statement confirming that the statement was posted by Pinduoduo’s official account, the firm blamed an external contractor for unauthorized posting.
In 2019, Chinese tech workers launched a viral Github campaign in protest of the grueling 996 work culture, which found support from tech workers in the U.S. but was blocked by web browsers from some Chinese tech companies. Also in 2019, Alibaba founder and then-richest man in Asia Jack Ma won himself massive criticism after posting online that it was a “huge blessing we can work 996.” Netizens poked fun at Ma with parody music videos, which were then quickly ordered offline by state censors.
Bloomberg’s Coco Liu reports that this time, Chinese state media has joined in the wave of public anger at the grueling labor norm, noting an imminent government investigation into Pinduoduo.
The state-run CCTV on Tuesday published a commentary that warned against trading human life for profit. Without naming specific corporations, CCTV called for authorities to step up regulatory oversight to protect the rights of workers.
In response to the uproar, the Shanghai Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau will dispatch an investigative team to Pinduoduo and collect relevant information from the company, a Changning District branch official who only wanted to be known as Wang told Bloomberg News by phone. [Source]
This comes as the Xi administration has been cracking down on the private sector entrepreneurs—and tech firms in particular—with regulations indicating Beijing’s eroding trust in the market amid its efforts to counter U.S. trade policies. At Nikkei Asia, Nikki Sun reports on Pinduoduo’s relative success at market share dominance and expansion—fueled by the labor practices at the center of this controversy—during a difficult economic year:
The developments come at a time when Pinduoduo and other Chinese internet companies are aggressively expanding into new areas beyond traditional e-commerce. The 22-year-old employee was part of Pinduoduo’s community group-buying business team in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Caixin reported.
The group-buying service, in which neighbors purchase groceries and fresh produce in bulk at discounted prices, became popular during the coronavirus pandemic and is now one of the hottest battleground areas in e-commerce. In addition to Pinduoduo, Alibaba Group Holding, Tencent Holdings, Meituan, JD.com and ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing have all rolled out the service or invested in startups in the segment.
Pinduoduo currently is leading the competition. Five months after it unveiled its online grocery shopping platform, Duo Duo Maicai, in August, Pinduoduo has expanded into more than 200 cities in China.
The initial success of Pinduoduo’s new business, along with the overall e-commerce boom during the COVID-19 pandemic, helped to quadruple the five-year-old company’s market capitalization to $170 billion by the end of December. Its 40-year-old founder, Colin Huang, also has overtaken Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Tencent’s Pony Ma to become China’s second-richest person, according to Forbes.
The cutthroat competition, however, has added to the pressure on current employees, who in many cases must work long hours to fulfill their job responsibilities. [Source]
A Chinese article from Chinese new media website Baobian includes a brief profile of the deceased young worker, and a glimpse into the culture at the firm. The article, which highlights a demanding and malfeasant corporate culture, remains online. An excerpt is translated below:
In college, Runfei [nickname of the deceased] started a band and participated in singing competitions. She was one of the top 10 singers in her university. Her classmate remembered her as an excellent and passionate singer.
A video by a friend of hers documented her performance before graduation. Her hair was curly, and she was wearing a black dress. The moment she opened her mouth, the auditorium exploded with applause.
[…] On Knock, Pinduoduo’s internal messaging app, Runfei’s bio read: “Baby Fei is guarding the frontier for Pinduoduo.”
[…] Pinduoduo is a very young company. According to the “Talent Flow Report for the Tech Industry” released by Maimai, as of 2020, the average age of workers at Pinduoduo is 27.
[…] But young people have their own lives and want to take a rest too. In 2018, after Pinduoduo’s IPO, someone asked in a staff meeting, “Do we get two days off every week now?” Founder and CEO Huang Zheng said, “No.” Some 2,000 people at the meeting fell silent.
[…] According to a legal professional, the Labor Law and relevant judicial explanations by the Supreme People’s Court places the burden on the employee to prove labor disputes related to overwork. An employee has to provide an attendance sheet, overtime application forms, overtime notices, surveillance footage, witnesses, written records of work conducted during overtime, emails, among other records.
In practice though, few companies are willing to admit their own overtime phenomenon [with this documentation]. In order to prove that one was required to work overtime against his or her own will, he or she has to provide written documentation from the company, signed by the supervisor.
This means that unless the employees can provide a string of evidence in litigation, even if they are being asked to take only one day off every two weeks they cannot prove that the company required them to work against their will. […] [Source]
Additionally, CDT Chinese editors have collected a sample of netizen comments from the ongoing wave of outrage, posted on various social media platforms. Several translated below relay verification and condemnation of the widespread corporate practice, while others remind readers to reserve some blame for the system has allowed these abusive practices to continue and worsen:
@龟仙人笔记：This incident reminds me of last October, when former employees revealed the “Hardcore Struggle Mode” campaign that Pinduoduo launched. It shortened lunch breaks from two hours to one, and set the minimum monthly work hours to 300. It might not sound like much, but it would require you to work 30 days per month even if you put in 10 hours every day. It’s a very scary requirement. Some friends who worked six-day weeks testified to how tired they were made to feel. This new minimum hour requirement contributed to the culture of overwork at Pinduoduo. Although Pinduoduo brushed it off as “rumor,” industry professionals know all too well how hard the people at Pinduoduo work.
@There4I: I saw it too. It’s reported that this young woman was born in 1998. And, Pinduoduo works the same way as the other so-called big firms, treating the labor law as a piece of toilet paper. But the people only direct their anger at “capital” and the capitalists, while turning a blind eye to a system that ignored or even encouraged illegal behavior.
>@刘言章侃：What kind of a society would let the lower class trade their lives for money?
@吕某某V转: It’s true that the companies are not to be blamed here. It’s that the you-know-which-Party is afraid of labor unions. Chaos will be unleashed if they lift up the restrictions, which would lead to democracy. [Chinese]