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Death of Chinese tech worker fuels anger over brutal hours

Workers at the headquarters of Pinduoduo in Shanghai on July 25, 2018. The e-commerce company is under fire over the death of an employee. (Chinatopix/AP)
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She was in her early 20s, and she was working hard to help win market share for a tech ­company run by China’s second-richest man.

The employee, named Fei, collapsed in the wee hours of Dec. 29 after a long shift working at online deals giant Pinduoduo, the company said. She died after six hours of first-aid treatment.

Though the cause of death hasn’t been confirmed, Fei’s fate has reignited scrutiny of brutal work schedules and vast ­inequities in the Chinese tech industry, whose power and wealth are attracting growing public criticism and pushback from regulators. Online discussions about Fei’s death racked up hundreds of millions of views this week, while Shanghai labor regulators told local media they had sent a team to investigate Pinduoduo’s labor contracts and work hours.

Fueling the public anger, a Pinduoduo social media account originally said grass-roots employees faced a “trade-off of life for money,” a statement the company later denounced as an unauthorized opinion of an outsourced marketing worker.

“We are heartbroken by Fei’s death and feel deeply for her family,” Pinduoduo later said in a statement, using the employee’s first name. “She was popular among her peers and valued by her colleagues. Our team has been accompanying the family all this time and providing every assistance that her family needs.”

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Reached by phone, a staff member of the labor protection department of Shanghai’s Changning district said officials were investigating the case but could not release any details at this stage.

Rui Ma, a San Francisco-based tech analyst, said there has been discontent for years over harsh work schedules in China’s high-tech industry, but the anger has deepened as the “996” schedule — short for 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — has remained entrenched, despite the industry’s growing stature and resources.

“The outrage only reached a crescendo in the last few years,” she said. “If you want to work in this industry, it does not feel like there are many options to opt out of 996.”

The 996 schedule is technically illegal under China’s labor law, which limits the number of overtime hours for employees and requires overtime pay, said Aidan Chau, a researcher at China Labor Bulletin. But there has been little enforcement, and Chinese Internet companies widely require 996 work hours.

“Every Internet company is not abiding by the law,” Chau said.

Amid the criticism, some Internet companies are shifting to alternating six-day and five-day workweeks, a system dubbed “big and little weeks,” according to state-run broadcaster CGTN.

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The public relations crisis for Pinduoduo comes at a time when China’s Internet giants are feeling the harshest pressure from the government since the industry’s inception, as their growing power threatens vested interests and state control of key sectors. Pinduoduo’s larger rival Alibaba was put under anti-monopoly investigation in December, a fall from favor that sent shock waves through the business community. The probe followed Beijing’s decision to scuttle the IPO of Alibaba’s financial services spinoff Ant Group, after Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma, angered the government with criticism of the country’s banking system.

Ma — who has previously endorsed the 996 work culture — has been conspicuously missing from public events in recent weeks.

Pinduoduo’s founder, Colin Huang, became China’s second-richest person last year, surpassing Ma, according to the Forbes real-time billionaires list. Founded in 2015 as a Groupon-like deals platform, Pinduoduo quickly took off, filling the low-end ­e-commerce segment that Alibaba was shifting away from in response to public pressure over counterfeit products on its platforms.

The details of Fei’s death reflected the harsh conditions for employees of China’s glitzy Internet empires. According to Pinduoduo, she collapsed after leaving work at 1:30 a.m. The company said she had written on her internal account that she was helping Pinduoduo to win market share in Xinjiang, in China’s northwest.

In response to the public outrage, Pinduoduo released a statement in which it quoted the deceased employee’s father thanking the company for its help. It also originally denied the “life for money” post, leading the social media platform Zhihu to make an unusual public statement confirming that a Pinduoduo account had posted and then deleted the comment — an indication the controversy had reached a level where even peripherally involved companies felt compelled to respond.

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Online, Fei’s case prompted others to write about their experiences of overwork.

“From the Pinduoduo case, I have seen more than the death of one young woman, but the breaking of a family and the helplessness of tens of millions of IT workers who are on the brink of death but have kept quiescent due to capitalist manipulation,” one Chinese business executive, who identified himself only by his surname, Li, wrote Tuesday on Zhihu.

China’s powerful state-run broadcaster CCTV also indirectly criticized Pinduoduo on Monday. Without naming the company, it said in a Weibo post that companies can’t have workers “exchange their lives for money.”

A number of Chinese firms have faced public accusations of employee deaths from overwork over the years. In 2006, the death of a 25-year-old Huawei engineer who had been working round-the-clock sparked public backlash, pushing the telecommunications giant to stop encouraging a “mattress culture” in which engineers worked through the night, napping on mattresses on the ground.

Lyric Li in Beijing and Alicia Chen in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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