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Pinduoduo employee's death sparks labor probe

By LI LEI | China Daily | Updated: 2021-01-06 08:55
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The hashtag "Shanghai's employment authorities have launched an investigation into Pinduoduo" had been viewed 40.6 million times on Sina Weibo by press time.

Xinhua News Agency said in a brief editorial posted on Weibo on Tuesday that dreams should be pursued through striving, but workers' legitimate rights and interests should not be sacrificed and employers may be breaking the law in encouraging health-sapping overwork.

"Strengthening the protection of legal rights and interests for workers, letting those chasing their dreams run along in a healthy manner and introducing more warmth into the development of enterprises-that's the form striving should take," it said.

The grief and anger surrounding Zhang's death is the latest sign of growing frustrations over the tech industry's tradition of encouraging employees to work long hours.

The abusive working schedule has become known among the tech community as "996"-working from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week, usually without overtime pay.

In 2019, Chinese tech workers united for an online protest by creating a page named 996.ICU on code-sharing platform, which garnered widespread attention.

The name 996.ICU refers to a saying among Chinese developers that following the 996 schedule puts you at risk of ending up in an intensive care unit.

Users of the page listed tech companies that used the 996 schedule, and then created a licensing agreement that would ban such companies from using their code.

Xu Haoqi, a programmer who has worked in tech firms in Beijing and Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, described the sector as a "intellect-intensive" industry.

The 27-year-old said tech-workers, just like factory workers and others employed in labor-intensive industries, are prone to work overtime because longer working hours means more output.

"In a sense, writing code is no different from tightening screws on an assembly line," he said.

China's Labor Law, passed 25 years ago, prescribes that the working hours of an employee should not exceed an average of eight hours a day, or 44 hours a week. Employers may extend working hours after consultation with an employee, but the extension should not exceed three hours a day or 36 hours a month.

The 996 work schedule, however, can easily ratchet up weekly work to 60 hours, without incurring penalties.

Li Na, a labor law researcher at China University of Labor Relations, said failings in law enforcement were partly to blame.

"The labor security inspection departments are usually understaffed," she said. "Authorities also lack the incentive to enforce the law stringently for fear of affecting production and, ultimately, tax revenue."

The law also requires employers to pay workers 50 percent more for hours spent working late on weekdays, with double pay on weekends and triple pay on public holidays.

However, many companies have used basic salary-without counting bonus payments-as a base to calculate overtime pay, making it cheaper for companies to ask employees to work long hours. The practice has also been upheld by employment authorities.

To address the problem, Li suggested that authorities intervene to prevent bonus payments from becoming the majority of salary, thus making it more expensive to force employees to work late nights.

Zhao Wei, a sociology professor at Beijing Normal University, said the overwork culture is not limited to the tech industry and can exist in less visible forms.

"For example, real estate agents usually are on call 24/7," she said.

Xu, the programmer, said food delivery workers, couriers and drivers for car-hailing services are all facing the same fate.

"They are just less vocal," he said.

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