Self-immolation and Suicide Among Chinese Tech Giants’ Employees

A Pinduoduo employee’s suicide, the second work-related death at the company in as many weeks, and an Ele.me courier’s self- have set the Chinese internet ablaze with discussion on labor conditions in the tech sector. Last week, a young Pinduoduo employee collapsed and died on the way home from the office, reportedly due to overwork. White-collar employees write that 996 culture—the expectation that one is in the office from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week—drives employee deaths. Blue-collar delivery drivers face a different dilemma: delivery giants’ local subcontractors that sometimes refuse to pay drivers, even when they meet astronomically high, algorithmically determined delivery benchmarks. At The Post, Lily Kuo and Lyric Li reported on the crisis engulfing Pinduoduo and the public’s turn against the e-commerce giant:

Pinduoduo said an employee — it gave only a last name, Tan — jumped to his death in his hometown of Changsha in central China on Saturday. The company said Tan, in his 20s, had asked for leave from the Shanghai-based platform on Friday without giving a reason and traveled home that same day.

[…] On Sunday, Pinduoduo’s public relations crisis deepened when an employee with the last name Wang posted a video in which he described the relentless pace of work at the company, alleging that staff members were required to work 300 hours a month. According to Wang, the department in which Fei worked, which specialized in groceries, required 380 hours.

[…] Anger on social media, already at a high after the death of the young woman, reached a new level in response to Tan’s death and Wang’s video, which was viewed more than 50 million times as of Monday.

[…] Hundreds of comments called for boycotting the Groupon-like platform, which gained market dominance by catering to the low-end ­ segment. Some vowed to block anyone who shared links to Pinduoduo deals, one of the key ways the company promotes itself. [Source]

At The , Yujie Xue and Che Pan provided further details about Wang’s viral video condemning the company:

In a 15-minute video posted late on Sunday to his Weibo account, the former employee – who identifies himself by his screen name Wang Taixu – said he was abruptly fired from PDD on Friday. He said he was terminated because of a post he made on anonymous professional social network Maimai about a co-worker being hospitalised.

[…]“[They] have discovered that there is at least one company in China that can force some of its most brilliant minds to work like slaves,” Wang said in the video. “I think I can use one sentence to describe this company: it lacks the care for its employees that’s probably lacking in all major internet companies. All of these are real and weigh on every employee at Pinduoduo.”

[…] Two former PDD employees, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals, told the Post that they agreed with Wang’s broad accusations about long working hours and poor working conditions at PDD. [Source]

On Weibo, many began comparing events at Pinduoduo to the Foxconn suicide crisis that shook China at the turn of the last decade. At Whats On Weibo, Manya Koetse shared netizen commentary on Pinduoduo’s work culture:

Since Pinduoduo is making headlines again for another employee death, people on Weibo are now mentioning the electronics manufacturer Foxconn (富士康). Foxconn attracted major media attention after a series of employee suicides in 2010 and 2012 linked to low pay and poor working conditions.

On Weibo, many commenters wonder if Pinduoduo is becoming a second Foxconn.

Meanwhile, more staff members are speaking out about Pinduoduo’s working culture. The stories of former employees of the company’s community group buying unit Duoduo Maicai (多多买菜) were shared by Sohu News. They talk about 12-hour workdays and “supersize” work weeks (超级大小周) where staff would work 13 days in a row, then get one day off, or not getting days off at all. They also speak of requirements to minimally work 300 hours per month. [Source]

Despite public backlash, some CEOs have publicly embraced marathon work hours. In a recent Weibo post, the CEO of popular restaurant chain Xibei Canyin proposed 715 work culture—seven days a week, 15 hours a day. One tech company has even created a “smart office chair” that tracks how many minutes workers spend at their stations. In response to corporate demands, some workers are embracing “touching fish,” a poetic euphemism for slacking off. At Quartz, Jane Li reported on the young workers who have taken to “touching fish”:

Buy a large thermos bottle, and fill it with either Chinese herbal tea or whiskey, as a desk-side companion. Set a reminder on your phone to drink eight glasses of water every day, and leave your workstation every 50 minutes to get that water. Start doing 15 minutes of stretches, or planking, in the office pantry. Set the goal of becoming the person who uses the most toilet paper in the company.

These are some of the tips (link in Chinese) for how to slack off at work provided by Massage Bear, a Chinese blogger whose musings on China’s Twitter-like Weibo have attracted more than half a million followers. Her philosophy of “touching fish” (mō yú), a Chinese phrase synonymous with lazing around at work, has resonated in recent months with many Chinese millennials, increasingly exhausted by society’s ever more intense rat race.

[…] “‘Touching fish’ is a passive way of rebelling for the young proletariat like me,” says Massage Bear, who declined to identify her actual name. The blogger says she isn’t trying to get people to shirk work. But she does think people should question why they work excessive hours to impress their boss or compete with colleagues. [Source]

At Bloomberg News, Shuli Ren argued that the “touching fish” phenomenon is not simply a rebellion against workaholic culture, but also, in part, a symptom of stagnant wages for young workers:

It’s a reflection of Gen Z’s disappointment with pay. Last year, China churned out 8.7 million university , a record high. More than 80% surveyed were hoping to earn at least 5,000 yuan ($770) a month in their first job, according to a recent study conducted by HRTechChina, a recruiting site. Fewer than 30% ended up getting that much. What’s the point of working hard for so little money? State-owned enterprises, which pay less but offer cozy, easy gigs, became graduates’ second-most-desired destination, after internet companies.[Source]

China’s couriers are likewise subject to immense pressure from tech-giant owned delivery companies. Last month, an Ele.me driver collapsed on the job. The company denied that it had any fiduciary responsibilities towards the man’s family, as he was technically an employee of a subcontractor. After online outrage, Ele.me agreed to pay the courier’s family 600,000 yuan. Meng Huixin, an e-commerce analyst, told the South China Morning Post that the episode was illustrative of the ways that delivery companies attempt to skirt Chinese labor laws: “The employment arrangement is the biggest loophole in the on-demand delivery [….] Most on-demand food delivery platforms are not tied to riders in labour contracts. Instead they seek to reduce costs and avoid legal risk by outsourcing their demand for labour.”

Ele.me was back in the news yesterday after a video of a Jiangsu delivery man setting himself on fire over a contract dispute with an Ele.me subcontractor went viral on Weibo. At The Financial Times, Yuan Yang and Ryan McMorrow wrote about the delivery driver’s plight:

Social media posts on Monday showed Liu Jin, a 45-year-old driver, setting himself on fire next to a Meituan delivery scooter in the eastern city of Taizhou. Videos shared on social media showed people rushing towards the man to put out the fire with extinguishers. “I want my blood and sweat money back,” Mr Liu said, covered in ash.

Mr Liu had been working for Ele.me, Alibaba’s food delivery platform, but recently signed up to Meituan, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation. Mr Liu experienced a pay dispute with Ele.me’s local partner in charge of drivers when he tried to resign, said one of the people. He then decided to set himself alight in protest.

[…] “Sometimes, food delivery couriers are compelled to do multi-apping to deliver for both Ele.me and Meituan to see if they’d get more than sticking with one platform,” said Jenny Chan, an assistant professor of sociology at The Polytechnic University, who studies labour and automation. [Source]

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