Employee deaths put China’s tech sector under further scrutiny

11 January 2021

An engineer employed at e-commerce platform Pinduoduo reportedly jumped to his death on Saturday, 9 January, after unexpectedly returning home on leave. It was the second sudden death of a Pinduoduo employee in ten days, highlighting the extreme pressure faced by workers in China’s ultra-competitive tech sector.

A 22-year-old Pinduoduo employee, surnamed Zhang, based in Urumqi, the regional capital of Xinjiang, died on 29 December after working past midnight. She collapsed while walking home with colleagues at 1:30am. Zhang’s colleagues rushed her to a local hospital, where she died a few hours later.

In the most recent case, the Pinduoduo engineer, surnamed Tan, had just graduated from Sichuan University in 2020 and had been working at the company headquarters in Shanghai for six months. On the morning of Friday, 8 January, he requested leave and immediately flew to his family home in the southwestern city of Changsha.

Both Tan’s and Zhang’s periods of employment coincide with the launch of a new Pinduoduo initiative (多多买菜) designed to capitalize on the growing demand for online grocery delivery services in China. Pinduoduo reportedly pushed its employees to log 300 hours per month in pursuit of company goals, which basically means working 12 hours per day, with only one day off per week at most. Several employees reportedly resigned because the pressure was too intense.

In response to the two sudden deaths, Pinduoduo announced that it would set up a psychological consultancy service for employees, a move reminiscent of the response of Taiwanese electronics giant Foxconn following the wave of worker suicides at its Shenzhen plant in 2010.

Pinduoduo has not responded well to public anger over the company’s working conditions. Caixin reported the company’s callous response to Zhang’s death, and the company allegedly fired another employee who posted on social media that another colleague had been taken away by ambulance. 

Last week, the Shanghai Municipal Labour Bureau announced the launch of an investigation into working conditions at Pinduoduo. However, Pinduoduo is not the only tech company that puts its employees under extreme pressure, as evidenced by the 996-ICU campaign by tech sector workers in 2019.

Workers on the frontline of the tech sector’s delivery services are also suffering from excessive working hours. A 43-year-old gig worker for Ele.me’s new on-demand logistics service (蜂鸟众包) died after collapsing at work in Beijing last month. The company initially offered the bereaved family just 2,000 yuan in compensation. Following public outcry, Ele.me agreed to raise that amount to the standard employee death benefit of 600,000 yuan.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions says it has prioritised delivery workers as one its eight key sectors for organizing. As the expose of the working conditions in the food delivery industry by People (人物) magazine last year showed, however, the union has so far made little progress in improving worker safety, pay or conditions. 

Public pressure and social media campaigns will only have a limited and temporary effect on the major tech companies. Concrete and lasting change will require a sustained effort from workers themselves, the trade union and civil society in order to force powerful tech companies to treat their employees with respect and allow them to earn decent pay for decent work.

Workers already have expressed demands for an effective trade union that can represent all tech sector workers. A recent post on the 996-ICU forum, for example, asked, “Have any of the big tech companies like Huawei, Tencent and Alibaba set up trade unions?”  We can only hope the ACFTU hears the call.

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