Death of 22-year-old tech employee sparks outrage over China's '996' work culture

The woman collapsed after leaving work at around 1.30am.

Jason Fan | January 07, 2021, 06:56 PM

The death of a 22-year-old female employee after working long hours past midnight at Chinese e-commerce giant Pinduoduo has sparked renewed discussions on social media about the overwork culture prevalent among China's tech companies.

According to South China Morning Post, the incident occurred in China's western region of Xinjiang.

The employee, a woman surnamed Zhang, collapsed at around 1.30am on Dec. 29, 2020, while she was walking home from work with colleagues.

Her colleagues then sent her to a nearby hospital, where she died six hours later, according to the statement issued by Pinduoduo.

"996" overwork culture

On social media, Zhang's sudden death has been linked to China's notorious "996" culture, which refers to a work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week.

This phenomenon is reportedly a common but unofficial practice in China's fast growing tech companies.

According to SCMP, the hashtag #996 was trending on microblogging platform Weibo, before it was taken down from the platform.

China's Labour Law allows employees to extend work hours by up to three hours for special reasons, but staff should not work more than 36 extra hours in a month.

In 2019, Jack Ma was criticised after announcing that employees at Alibaba Group Holding Ltd have to work 12 hours a day, with only one day off a week.

"To be able to work 996 is a huge bliss," said Ma.

"If you want to join Alibaba, you need to be prepared to work 12 hours a day, otherwise why even bother joining."

Company made insensitive remarks over death

In addition, the company also triggered a second wave of anger on China's social media, after it made an insensitive remark on the incident through one of its official social media accounts.

On Jan. 4, 2021, a post was published on Q&A social platform, with one user questioning whether Pinduoduo should be held responsible.

In response, the official Pinduoduo account on Zhihu had this to say:

"Look at the people at the bottom [of society]. Who's not exchanging their life for money? I never thought of it as a problem of capitalism but as a social problem. This is the era of hard work. You can choose to spend your days easy and comfortably. But you have to accept the consequences of ease and comfort. People can control their own efforts - we all can."

The comment, which suggested that working extremely long hours is up to an individual, angered many netizens, given that leaving one's job or turning down long hours may not be an option for many.

The comment was deleted within minutes, and the company allegedly denied posting such a comment.

However, Zhihu later confirmed that the account writing this comment was a verified account belonging to Pinduoduo.

The company later apologised for the post, claiming that it was posted by a person who worked for Pinduoduo's marketing department, and had originally replied to the thread with their own personal point of view, not realising that they had not logged out of the company's official Zhihu account.

The employee later deleted the comment the moment they realised it was not sent from their own personal Zhihu account, said Pinduoduo.

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