Worker deaths put Big Tech in China under scrutiny

By Vivian Wang, The New York Times

It was 1:30 a.m. just days before the new year, and the 22-year-old employee of Pinduoduo, a Chinese e-commerce company, was leaving after a long day of work. Suddenly, she clutched her stomach and collapsed. Her co-workers rushed her to a hospital, but six hours later, she died.

Less than two weeks later, a young Pinduoduo worker leaped to his death during a brief visit to his parents. The next day, a third employee said he had been fired after criticizing Pinduoduo’s work culture.

The day after that, a delivery driver for another technology company set himself on fire, demanding unpaid wages.

“I want my blood and sweat money,” he said in a video shared widely on Chinese social media in recent weeks.

The string of deaths and protests has reopened a national debate around the power of China’s biggest technology companies and the expectations they impose on their employees at a time when internet giants around the world are under fierce scrutiny.

Users have called for boycotts of Pinduoduo, one of China’s biggest online shopping platforms. Authorities in Shanghai, where the company is based, announced an investigation into its working conditions. The company is no longer co-sponsoring the state broadcaster’s Lunar New Year gala, China’s most-watched television program.

Pinduoduo said in statements that it would offer employees psychological counseling. It also released a screenshot of a message that it said was from the father of the female employee who died, thanking the company for its support. A Pinduoduo spokesperson declined to comment further.

The New York Times

The Pinduoduo app. The company said it would offer psychological counseling to employees after the deaths of two young colleagues.

Both the government and ordinary citizens have begun turning on the companies they once held up as symbols of China’s growing superpower status. Chinese officials recently announced an antitrust investigation into Alibaba. Jack Ma, that e-commerce group’s billionaire co-founder, has become a favorite villain online. Regulators abruptly halted the much-anticipated initial public offering of Ant Group, Alibaba’s sister company.

The furor also speaks to broader concerns that decades of seemingly unlimited economic promise are ending. Despite China’s rapid recovery from the coronavirus outbreak, many blue-collar workers are struggling. Young white-collar workers have grown increasingly vocal about long workdays, bleak job prospects and dissatisfaction with the rat race.

Margaret R. Servin

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