New employee death at Chinese tech giant Pinduoduo prompts calls for boycott
By Lily Kuo and Lyric Li,
Mike Segar Reuters
TAIPEI — One of China’s largest e-commerce giants, Pinduoduo, is facing calls for a boycott after an engineer committed suicide — the company’s second death in less than two weeks — amid accusations of harsh work conditions.
Pinduoduo, an online deals platform responsible for minting the country’s second-richest man, has become a lightning rod for public anger over the grueling hours common in China’s tech industry — known as the “996” work culture, it is an expectation to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
Pinduoduo said an employee surnamed Tan had 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 company on Friday without giving a reason and traveled home that same day.
The company said it had sent a team to Changsha and expressed its “profound sadness” over Tan’s death.
“To support our employees we are setting up an internal channel and dedicated team to provide psychological counseling and consultation services for emergencies,” Pinduoduo said in an emailed statement.
Tan’s death follows that of a woman in her 20s named Fei who collapsed while walking home from a long shift at the company on Dec. 29. She died after six hours of first-aid treatment, and while the cause of death has not been released, critics seized on the case as an example of consistently inhumane treatment of those working in the tech industry.
On Sunday, Pinduoduo’s public relations crisis deepened when an employee surnamed Wang posted a video where he described the relentless pace at the company, alleging that staff members were required to work 300 hours a month. According to Wang, the department where Fei worked, which specialized in groceries, required 380 hours.
Wang said he was dismissed after he earlier posted a photo of an ambulance he claimed was carrying away another co-worker who had collapsed at the office. “A second Pinduoduo warrior has fallen,” he wrote anonymously on Maimai.cn, a LinkedIn-like platform for sharing information about companies.
Evening commuters go through fare gates at a subway station in the Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai on Dec. 21.
Within half an hour of sending his post, Wang said he was summoned by executives and fired. In response to criticism, Maimai released a statement maintaining that it had not released his information to his employer.
Pinduoduo said in a statement that Wang was let go because he had posted “extreme statements” online in violation of the employees’ code of conduct. The company did not respond to requests for comment on the video.
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.
“Pinduoduo is the new Foxconn,” one commentator wrote, referring to a spate of suicides in 2010 among workers making Apple products at the company’s factory in Shenzhen.
“Heartless Pinduoduo. Heartless Colin Huang,” another wrote on Weibo, referring to Pinduoduo’s founder, who became China’s second-richest man last year. “Diabolical capitalists have no heart,” the user wrote. “Bloodsucking capitalist vampires,” one posted. “Don’t you dare boast about your contribution to society!”
Hundreds of comments called for boycotting the Groupon-like platform which has gained market dominance by catering to the low-end e-commerce segment. Some vowed to block anyone who shared links to Pinduoduo deals, one of the key ways the company promotes itself.
The backlash against Pinduoduo comes as China’s largest tech companies face pressure from both the public and regulators. Pinduoduo’s rival Alibaba has found itself the focus of an anti-monopoly probe. Its founder Jack Ma, who endorsed the 996 work schedule, has been absent from public view for weeks.
After reports of the first Pinduoduo death, China’s official Xinhua News Agency called for shorter work hours and criticized the industry’s “abnormal culture of overtime.” Shanghai labor regulators said they had launched an investigation into the company.
On the Quora-like forum Zhihu, labor rights lawyer Yuan Yayang, who said he is helping Wang with a lawsuit against Pinduoduo, asked the company to respond to allegations raised in the video and called on regulators to publicize their probe.
“A week has passed, but where are the investigation results by Shanghai labor inspection department?” the lawyer asked in another post.
Wang said in his video, “The situation is too real to be overlooked and this is the last straw. . . . This is not how the world is supposed to be.”