In China, tech-worker deaths spark online backlash5 min read . Updated: 20 Jan 2021, 09:40 AM IST
- Criticism of companies grows after workers expose marathon hours, labor disputes
The delivery man doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. Engulfed in flames, he protested for what he said were unpaid fees from a business tied to Chinese technology giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
“I want my blood- and sweat-money back," said the man, Liu Jin, covered in ash, as police officers tried to rush him to the hospital on Monday, a widely shared video posted on social media showed.
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The 48-year-old Mr. Liu, who survived but suffered severe burns, is one of the millions of workers in China’s tech sector whose plight has ignited online denunciations of the country’s internet giants by internet users and state media. The outcry shines a spotlight on the grueling working conditions and hard-edge labor practices that many blue- and white-collar workers face as the internet companies they work for battle over users.
Mr. Liu delivered meals through a subcontractor of Alibaba’s Ele.me food-delivery service in the eastern Chinese city of Taizhou, according to the local government. Ele.me said it has paid Mr. Liu’s medical expenses and is continuing to assist him and his family. It also said that Ele.me prohibits agencies it works with from defaulting on paying delivery riders and that it is investigating the case.
In recent weeks, Pinduoduo Inc., a fast-growing e-commerce company that now rivals Alibaba by some measures, has also faced criticism after the deaths of two workers in their 20s: One collapsed on her way home from work at 1:30 a.m. and the other jumped from a high-rise. Pinduoduo confirmed the incidents and expressed condolences to the workers’ families.
Posts about these incidents went viral on Chinese social media Weibo, drawing hundreds of millions of views, with many users criticizing the long working hours and calling for workers to be treated more humanely.
Another delivery man for Alibaba’s Ele.me broke down and died on the job in December, according to state broadcaster Chinese Central Television. Ele.me, noting that the driver worked with a subcontractor, initially offered his family what it called “compassionate compensation" equivalent to $300. After an online uproar, Ele.me said on Weibo it would increase the payout to $92,000. The company didn’t provide further comment.
Rising concerns and anger directed at China’s increasingly powerful tech companies echo shifts in sentiment in the U.S. and Europe. As in the West, the reversal comes as authorities scrutinize the business practices of tech giants and take action to rein in their influence.
In recent months, Chinese authorities have launched an antimonopoly probe into Alibaba’s business practices, shelved the initial public offering of its financial affiliate Ant Group Co. and summoned executives at Alibaba, Pinduoduo and four other tech giants to discuss their business practices.
Chinese technology companies have benefited from a sharp increase in demand for e-commerce and food delivery during the pandemic. In the first 11 months of 2020, online retail accounted for 30% of overall sales, up from 25.8% a year earlier, data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics showed.
That surge in demand has lifted tech shares and the fortunes of entrepreneurs like Alibaba founder Jack Ma, who topped the list of China’s wealthiest people before the latest wave of regulatory action drove down Alibaba shares. The share price of five-year-old Pinduoduo quadrupled last year, turning founder Colin Huang into China’s second-richest man, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaire Index.
The pandemic has added to heavy workloads for rank-and-file workers, from university-graduate programmers to less-educated delivery workers. China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based workers’ rights group, says pay-per-order for couriers has fallen in recent years.
Algorithms on delivery apps pit couriers against one another, penalizing slower workers and those who receive anything less than a five-star customer review, adding an extra layer of psychological pressure, says Jenny Chan, an associate professor of sociology at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
“The recent spate of deaths reveal the pent-up frustration and despair that have accumulated over time," says Ms. Chan, who studies the working conditions of China’s delivery workers.
Workers in China, prevented from organizing by China’s ban on independent labor unions, at times resort to drastic action to draw attention to their plight, she added.
Online posts showed that the latest incidents reminded many people of the series of suicides a decade ago by workers at Chinese factories where Foxconn Technology Group assembled gadgets including Apple Inc.’s iPhones. The suicides similarly highlighted the drudgery of high-tech work in China—back then building electronics, now working in the gig economy or e-commerce.
Dissatisfaction with Chinese internet companies’ “996" culture—working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week—has been brewing for years. Labor law stipulates that working day shouldn’t exceed eight hours and the working week 44 hours, though it is rarely enforced, notes Ms. Chan.
Many university graduates are willing to work the long hours in exchange for prestige and relatively high salaries, but a growing number say the pressure has become harder to bear.
This week, a video posted by a former Pinduoduo employee on Weibo decrying what he described as grueling working hours, rotten canteen meals and a shortage of toilets at company offices went viral on China’s internet, racking up nearly 60 million views.
A spokesman for Pinduoduo said it fired the worker after finding that he had left “extreme statements with significant malicious intent" on an online forum. The employee, who according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency is a web engineer surnamed Wang, declined to comment, citing labor arbitration with Pinduoduo.
At the company’s Shanghai headquarters, employees are discouraged from socializing, and working hours as well as breaks are monitored by surveillance cameras, according to current and former employees of the five-year-old company. They said weak cellular data signals inside the office mean employees must use the company’s network for internet connectivity, which they believe allows the firm to track their smartphone internet use.
One Pinduoduo employee’s work schedule showed no days off, and office hours that regularly stretched past midnight and occasionally until 6 a.m., according to a digital record reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Pinduoduo didn’t comment on specific workplace conditions but said in that it had set up an internal channel and a dedicated team to counsel employees after the latest worker deaths.
Ms. Chan, the sociologist, said public debate over tech companies’ labor practices has helped fuel popular outcry, which in turn engenders support for tougher government regulation of the industry.
In a commentary posted on Weibo last week, state broadcaster CCTV called on tech companies to strengthen worker protections.
At Pinduoduo, workers said they are pessimistic that anything will change soon. “These issues have been discussed for such a long time already," said one. “Everyone’s already resigned and quite numb to it."
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text