Pinduoduo worker deaths reignite debate on 996 and the dark side of China tech’s overwork culture

Pinduoduo confirmed the deaths of two young workers recently, sparking debate over a culture of overworking in China’s tech companies. A ‘996’ work schedule of 12 hours a day, six days a week has become an unwritten standard for many of the country’s tech firms. —

The dark side of working for China’s booming technology industry is under the spotlight again amid public criticism of social commerce giant Pinduoduo in the wake of two employee deaths, with many fearing the infamous 996 culture has become worse and not better due to pressure from the pandemic.

Pinduoduo, a rapidly expanding online sales firm, first found itself at the centre of a storm following the death of a 22-year-old woman surnamed Zhang, who was working at one of its new business units in Urumqi, on Dec 29 last year. Pinduoduo released a statement on Zhang’s death on Jan 4 and the same week, it said another young worker, surnamed Tan, jumped to his death in his hometown of Changsha.

Public anger at Pinduoduo intensified when a former employee, who said his name was Wang Taixu, published a 15-minute video attacking Pinduoduo for imposing extra long hours on its employees. Pinduoduo denied the allegations in a corporate statement and said Wang had been fired for “repetitively posting malicious and extreme comments” on social media, in an apparent reference to the video.

Pinduoduo had not responded to the Post’s queries about its work culture as of publication time.

The string of cases has sparked a public relations crisis for Pinduoduo, which is one of the fastest-growing e-commerce companies in China.

But it is not the only company accused of overworking employees. The culture of 996, which refers to working 12 hours a day, six days a week, has become an unwritten standard for many of the country’s tech firms.

Tech workers have been complaining about 996 for years, and in 2019 some launched a project called 996.ICU on Microsoft’s GitHub code-sharing community. “If you work 996, you end up in an ICU (intensive care unit),” the campaign’s slogan read. Some netizens have even joked about a new work ethic – “007”, or “00.00am to 00.00pm” seven days a week.

The 996.ICU campaign has led Chinese state media to criticise such labour rights violations, but little has changed in the past two years.

At the same time, tech companies such as Kuaishou, Tencent, ByteDance and Pinduoduo have seen a surge in customers during the Covid-19 pandemic, as lockdowns accelerated a shift towards online shopping and other Internet services.

Shanghai-based Pinduoduo’s share price on the Nasdaq has more than quadrupled from under US$40 (RM162) per share to US$180 (RM728) in the last 12 months – making its 40-year-old founder, Colin Huang Zheng, the second-richest person in China. But for many Chinese commentators and analysts, businesses like Pinduoduo have gone too far in pushing their employees in pursuit of success.

“[996] isn’t getting better. To some extent, it’s getting even worse,” said Zhang Xiaorong, director at think tank Beijing Cutting-Edge Technology Research Institute. “The pandemic in 2020 has created an even stiffer job market. And being in a weaker position in the job market, employees sometimes have to give in.”

“Winners take all, big fish eat small fish, fast fish eat slow fish... this type of fierce competition has caused countless workers to pay a huge physical and mental price,” said Yang Guoqing, a lecturer at the Centre of Modern Human Resources Assessment, which is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s Shanghai Party Institute.

Yang said tech firms are popular with young Chinese employees as salaries are generally higher than those in the manufacturing and services sectors.

But this often means workers in the industry have to work extra long hours to prove their value to employers.

Short video platform Kuaishou recently asked all employees to work an extra day every two weeks ahead of its initial public offering (IPO) in Hong Kong. Internet giant ByteDance is known for its so-called big week/small week model, where employees have to work a six-day week every fortnight. And former and current employees at Chinese telecoms equipment champion, Huawei Technologies Co, have told the Post that employees routinely work a six-day week every month in return for extra pay or compensation leave.

Kuaishou, ByteDance and Huawei did not immediately respond to the Post’s requests for comment.

“Everyone is working 996,” said Beijing Cutting-Edge’s Zhang. “If you don’t, you are falling behind.”

Technically, 996 is a violation of China’s labour law which stipulates that employees should work no more than eight hours a day and 44 hours per week. Overtime should not exceed 36 hours a month, according to the law.

However, China’s labour authority has not punished any Big Tech firm for encouraging or forcing its employees to work extra long hours.

Workers also often do not get properly compensated for the overtime work they do. In a survey by online recruitment platform Zhilian Zhaopin in 2019, over 70% of 10,000 respondents said they had gone unpaid for overtime work.

“Although workers have the right to request employers to pay overtime wages, it is still very difficult for workers to provide evidence,” said Yang Chunhui, a Beijing-based lawyer. “Employees usually dare not claim overtime wages from the companies until they decide to quit their jobs.”

The lawyer said it is common for employers to implement the 996 schedule as an unwritten rule, or even make it a part of the corporate culture, making it easier to circumvent the labour law.

Prominent tech leaders have defended long working hours in the past. In a blog post in April 2019, Alibaba Group Holding founder Jack Ma said the 996 schedule has helped Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent Holdings grow to become what they are today.

“If you join Alibaba, you should get ready to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why do you come to Alibaba? We do not need those who comfortably work eight hours,” he wrote.

Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post. founder Richard Liu has also attributed the e-commerce giant’s success to his early endurance of long hours of work, and in a WeChat post in 2019 said those who slack off in his company were “not my brothers”.

A former employee at Pinduoduo, who declined to be named, said her official work schedule at Pinduoduo was from 11am to 8pm including two hours of breaks for lunch and dinner. But in reality, most workers stayed in the office until midnight and weekend duties were common.

“Some of them worked late because of the heavy workload, others due to peer pressure,” she said.

Zhang, the 22-year-old employee who died, was employed at Duoduo Maicai, a new business unit at Pinduoduo that is part of the New York-listed company’s pursuit for an edge in the billion-dollar community group buying market. Growth in the market has led to fierce competition against rivals such as Meituan, resulting in extra pressure and heavy workloads for employees.

According to a 2020 report recently released by recruiting platform Maimai, the Internet industry scored the lowest on employee happiness levels, but new recruits were still flocking to tech jobs due to attractive salaries.

To rebel against a culture of working overtime for little reward, some young employees are finding ways to slack off while still clocking the long hours expected – a practice they call “touching fish”, which is a term borrowed from a Chinese proverb that says one should take advantage of a crisis to chase personal gain.

For example, workers may hide in toilets for hours watching short videos on TikTok, or secretly read online novels on their work desktops.

To discourage employees from “touching fish”, Kuaishou has installed timers in restrooms to keep track of the time employees spend inside, while Pinduoduo has a sign in front of their restrooms: “don’t bring your mobile phone to the toilet”.

However, China’s tech hub Shenzhen is doing its bit to improve the country’s work culture with a new law that took effect this year, obliging companies to let staff take their mandated days off even if they applied to work overtime voluntarily.

But one Shenzhen designer told the Post last year that if she took all the time off she was supposed to take, she would have to work overtime anyway to get through the accumulated work.

“If you don’t finish your project in hand, your performance review will suffer, along with your salary,” Zoey Zou said.

And Angela Zhang, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said spotty enforcement by local governments could be a major obstacle to changing the overwork culture.

“Although the central government might call for better working conditions for workers in the tech sector, it is the local governments that are in charge of enforcing the relevant labour rules,” she said. “So I am not optimistic that the [Pinduoduo] tragedy will fundamentally change the working conditions in the tech sector. It might lead to temporary improvement, but such effects might be short-lived.” – South China Morning Post

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