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Probe into labour conditions at Chinese tech giant amid employee deaths and dismissal scandal
Na Qing
/ Categories: News, Technology, Organisations

Probe into labour conditions at Chinese tech giant amid employee deaths and dismissal scandal

Head image: An investigation into labour conditions at Pinduoduo is currently being launched by Shanghai’s labour authority. Source: AP

A staff member of Pinduoduo was dismissed after posting a photo of his colleague being taken to hospital in front of the company on Maimai - a Chinese LinkedIn-like job hunting platform. According to Pinduoduo, the employee was dismissed because of “extreme comments” he made previously.

The post was made anonymously on the platform’s Zhiyan section, or Career Talks in English, where users exchange job information and share employer reviews. The post soon caught the firm’s attention after it went viral on Maimai. But what unleashed the public’s anger was the witch-hunting, during which the company reportedly ordered employees to show their phone posts on the social networking site and on Wechat , the most popular communication tool in China. 

Wang Xiaoyong, whose account was verified on Maimai as platform governance manager at Pinduoduo, responded to the post saying that a staff member suffered abdominal pain around 11am on 7 January. The male employee was later diagnosed with enterospasm. It is unclear if the hospitalisation was work-related. 

Image: A photo of a staff member of Pinduoduo being taken to hospital in front of the company with a caption, saying “Another Pinduoduo warrior collapsed”. Source: Maimai.

The former employee, known as Taixu, worked at Pinduoduo for a year and a half. In a video posted on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging site, he said he was dismissed 30 minutes after posting the photo with a short caption in which he indicated the company’s poor labour conditions with a sarcastic tone, saying “Another Pinduoduo warrior collapsed”.

Following the incident, Maimai stated,  “We strictly follow national data protection regulations.  The platform would never share user’s information to a third party.”

Taixu said, “I was taken to a meeting room by a senior manager. After changing the elevator twice and walking up another three floors, we entered a room where two HR staff and my line manager were already sat waiting.”

He was presented documents which included some of his previous comments that the manager deemed to be “damaging to the company’s image”. “They asked me to sign an agreement in which I would agree to quit ‘voluntarily’, or have my professional record stained..[the agreement] also required me to promise not to make such comments again ”.

“I thought for a second and told them ‘you can fire me’,” said Taixu.

“This might be the first time in my life that I was surrounded by so many senior officials,” he added, “[after the talk] we went down to my seat. They took my staff card while I was packing my stuff and accompanied me downstairs not allowing me to talk to my colleagues. It all happened in just 20 minutes.”

If the method an institution adopts to solve a problem does not address the issue itself, but instead silences the person who raises the issue, is this right?  - Taixu, former employee of Pinduodou

The Nasdaq-listed company is already experiencing a PR crisis following the two deaths of its employees in just two weeks. A 22-year-old woman, surnamed Zhang, collapsed on her way home from work at 1.30 am on 29th December last year. She died six hours after being rushed to hospital in Urumqi, the capital city of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. 

On 9th January 2021, a technology developer surnamed Tan jumped to his death from his 27th floor apartment, where he lived with his parents in Changsha in Hunan province, one day after he asked for a leave without specifying the reason. 

Image: Pinduoduo statement in response to Tan's death. Source: Pinduoduo.

“After I saw the news, I felt sorry for him. It also made me more angry at this company,” Taixu continued, “If the method an institution adopts to solve a problem does not address the issue itself, but instead silences the person who raises the issue, is this right?”

Pinduoduo confirmed the death of the two employees.  In a statement, the employer also said it will offer mental wellbeing and crisis counselling for all staff. While the company did not detail the reason for any of these deaths, many attribute the deaths to overwork despite a lack of evidence.  Netizens also tend to connect the two deaths to the controversy of “996” - a work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week. The work rhythm was endorsed by Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, and  is widely adopted by Chinese tech companies.  

A former employee of Pinduoduo told that staff working on Duo Duo Mai Cai - a next-day, self-pick up grocery shopping service on its platform - work more than 12 hours a day. The employer also introduced Big and Small Weeks, which means staff work for 7 days a week and 6 days for the week after, leaving only two days off a month.

Pinduoduo statement in response to the dismissal. Source: Pinduoduo.

A statement published by Pinduoduo in response to Taixu’s dismissal says, “He was expelled not because of the photo he posted anonymously, but several ‘extreme comments’ we found he had previously made, which breached our employee’s code of conduct.”

“The photo he took on 7th January outside the company with inappropriate speculation has led to a public debate...it could also harm the company’s image,” the statement reads.

Pinduoduo also denies that HR staff had checked employees’ phones to find out who the anonymous poster was, nor did they threaten to destroy his professional reputation. It says the claim saying there is a 300-hour duty calculator is in fact not true.

It is reported that an investigation into labour conditions at Pinduoduo is currently being launched by Shanghai’s labour authority, while details have  not yet been made available. 

 

Na QingQing Na

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