Death of Chinese tech worker fuels anger over brutal hours

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She was in her early 20s, and she was working hard to help to win market share for a tech company run by China’s second-richest man.

The employee, named Fei, collapsed in the wee hours of Dec. 29 after a long shift working at online deals giant Pinduoduo, the company said. She passed away after six hours of first-aid treatment.

Though the cause of death hasn’t been confirmed, Fei’s fate has reignited scrutiny of brutal work schedules and vast inequalities in the Chinese tech industry, whose power and wealth are attracting growing public criticism and pushback from regulators. Online discussions about Fei’s death racked up hundreds of millions of views this week, while Shanghai labor regulators told local media they had sent a team to investigate Pinduoduo’s labor contracts and work hours.

Fueling the public anger, a Pinduoduo social media account originally said grass-roots employees faced a “trade-off of life for money,” a statement the company later denounced as an unauthorized opinion of an outsourced marketing worker.

“We are heartbroken by Fei’s death and feel deeply for her family,” Pinduoduo later said in a statement, using the employee’s first name. “She was popular among her peers and valued by her colleagues. Our team has been accompanying the family all this time and providing every assistance that her family needs.”

Reached by phone, a staff member of the labor protection department of Shanghai’s Changning district said officials were investigating the case but could not release any detail at this stage.

Rui Ma, a San Francisco-based tech analyst, said there has been discontent for years over harsh work schedules in China’s high-tech industry, but the anger has deepened as the so-called “996” schedule — short for 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — has remained entrenched, despite the industry’s growing stature and resources.

“The outrage only reached a crescendo in the last few years,” she said. “If you want to work in this industry, it does not feel like there are many options to opt out of 996.”

The 996 schedule is technically illegal under China’s labor law, which limits the number of overtime hours for employees and requires overtime pay, said Aidan Chau, a researcher at China Labor Bulletin. But there has been little enforcement, and Chinese Internet companies widely require 996 work hours.

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