Pinduoduo, one of China’s fastest-growing ecommerce platforms, is managing a PR crisis following the death of a staff member on December 29. The female staff member in question—said to be in her early 20s—collapsed while walking home from the office at 1.30 am and died six hours later.
Her death sparked a social-media backlash against the company and its alleged poor working practices, and more largely drew attention to China’s normalisation of extended working hours in the tech industry.
According to a report on Financial Times, Pinduoduo in particular is known for its gruelling schedules and secretive culture, with several current and former employees telling the publication that a working week at the company could stretch even longer than the '996' norm. This 996 working practice refers to working 9 am till 9 pm six days a week—and it’s become something of a culture among tech companies, leading to mass burnout among Chinese millennials.
Yesterday morning, a post on one of Pinduoduo’s social-media accounts appeared to rationalise the death. The post translated to: “Look at the people at the bottom—who is not trading life for money?... This is an era where we fight with our lives.” The post—which quickly went viral—has been deleted.
On January 4, a reporter from Beijing Youth Daily-Beijing Toutiao learned from the social security supervision department of Changning District, Shanghai, that after receiving public opinion on the internet, the labour security supervision department has started an investigation on the employment situation of Pinduoduo and will look over the company’s employment contract and working hours.
In an official statement from Pinduoduo sent to Campaign Asia-Pacific, the company expressed heartbreak over its staffer's death and but did not mention its working practices or the social media backlash that ensued. An excerpt of the statement reads:
Fei was born in 1998 and joined Pinduoduo in July 2019. At 1:30 a.m. on December 29, 2020, she was travelling home with her colleagues when she suddenly collapsed. Her colleagues immediately called for an ambulance to send her to a hospital. Unfortunately, she passed away after undergoing six hours of emergency rescue.
We are heartbroken by Fei's death and feel deeply for her family. 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. At the request of her parents, we did not make any public announcement these past few days. We hope that people will respect the family's expressed desire for privacy during this difficult time.
Tech chiefs such as Alibaba founder Jack Ma and JD.com chief Richard Liu have publicly endorsed the 996 work culture, and have claimed that it is “necessary for survival” in a competitive landscape. "I personally think that 996 is a huge blessing," Ma said during an internal event in 2019. "How do you achieve the success you want without paying extra effort and time?"
Ma added that any prospective employees of Alibaba should be prepared to work 12 hours a day if they want to succeed. He said: "Or why bother joining? We don't lack those who work eight hours comfortably.”
Late last year, it was reported that China was stepping up regulation of tech companies, which includes new anti-monopoly rules for online platforms. Whether this might improve employment practices and staff conditions is unclear.
Additional reporting by Minnie Wang.