By Victor Escribano
Shanghai, China, Jan 27 (efe-epa).- The death of two employees of the e-commerce giant Pinduoduo, allegedly related to stress and overwork, has reopened the exploitation debate in China in a sector whose leaders proudly defend endless working hours.
Social networks and even the official press have dealt with the controversy profusely, which began Dec. 29 with the sudden death of a 22-year-old Pinduoduo employee who collapsed when she was returning home with her co-workers.
Shortly after, on Jan. 9, another company employee committed suicide after returning to his hometown just one day after requesting leave from his boss without giving specific reasons.
In response, Pinduoduo announced the creation of a working group and the opening of an internal channel to “provide psychological support and consultation services” in emergencies.
Under Chinese law, employees must work eight hours a day with a maximum of 36 hours of overtime each month, which puts the legal limit at about 196 hours per month.
“If we count 11 hours of work each day, the monthly total would rise to 264, 35 percent more than the legal limit. Pinduoduo employees are often asked to work 300 hours a month, sometimes up to 380 hours, which exceeds the limits by 53 percent and 94 percent, respectively “, Jack Qiu, professor of Communication at the National University of Singapore and an expert in matters related to work in the digital sector, told EFE.
In a statement, the company denied that it needs these hours and said these are “false rumors” driven by a worker who was fired for “repeatedly posting malicious and extreme comments” on social networks.
Although the two deaths have occurred within Pinduoduo, other companies in the sector also employ the “996” hours: from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.
The origin of “996” has its roots in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, when young employees of emerging technology companies “felt they were entrepreneurs,” Qiu said, so “they worked tirelessly to achieve considerable financial benefits in a couple of years from now.”
However, over time, the now-tech giants became “much bigger, more exploitative, and even despotic,” denying employees the dream of being as wealthy as their bosses.
Far from trying to hide it, some of the great leaders of the technology sector defend the “996”: the billionaire founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba, Jack Ma, said in 2019 it is a “blessing”.
“If you join Alibaba, you should be prepared to work 12 hours a day. If not, why do you come to Alibaba? We do not need those who work eight hours comfortably,” the businessman said at the time, according to a transcript of an internal meeting published by the company itself.
Ma’s statements came shortly after the slogan of the collaborative platform for programmers GitHub went viral on Facebook.
“If you keep doing ‘996’ schedules, you will end up in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit),” it wrote, accumulating more than 255,000 likes.
It not only criticizes businessmen who defend the decision to impose the “996” but also the founder of JD – main rival of Alibaba and Pinduoduo – Richard Liu, who said he would never force to comply with those schedules while alleged lists were filtered of departments rating employees based on overtime hours performed.
Asked whether there is an alternative scenario possible in which technology companies put aside the endless schedules but continue to grow, Professor Qiu says no: “Their rapid growth depends on exploitation-based roadmaps … To keep growing as in the past, these companies will probably want to insist on them.”
“But it is less and less likely due to the resistance on the part of the workers, the pressure of public opinion and the interventions of the government,” Qiu said.
On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, many users recalled in recent weeks the series of suicides between 2010 and 2012 in factories of Taiwanese company Foxconn – known internationally for assembling the iPhone and other Apple products – supposedly due to low wages and poor working conditions.
Some users asked why “996” is considered normal, others asked to reinforce labor legislation because “if not, companies will not be afraid of workers,” and there are also those who support these schedules: “If you don’t like it, change jobs. Why did China become the world’s largest economy? Because our parents’ generation worked most of the day.”