Pinduoduo faces growing PR crisis over employee death

China’s fastest-growing ecommerce group Pinduoduo is facing a growing public relations crisis and an investigation into its working conditions after one of its employees died after collapsing on her way home from work.

The employee’s death, which occurred in the early hours of December 29, has revived concerns over the brutal work culture at some Chinese tech companies. The long hours often expected of employees are known as “996” — meaning they start work at 9am, leave at 9pm and work six days a week.

The sector’s exhausting working weeks have come under fire in the past, with an “anti-996” campaign gaining steam in 2019 among tech workers and activists. But the effort largely failed to change workplace norms.

Pinduoduo in particular is known for its gruelling schedules and a secretive culture, with several current and former employees telling the Financial Times that a working week at the company could stretch even longer than the “996” norm.

In return, employees often take home higher pay than their peers at Alibaba or Tencent.

Last year, the company’s workforce succeeded in powering rocketing revenues, while Pinduoduo’s New York-listed shares rose almost 400 per cent to bring the company’s year-end market value to $218bn. Its shares fell 2 per cent in early trading on Monday.

Pinduoduo identified the employee by part of her first name, Fei, while state media reported that she was on her way home from work with colleagues at 1:30am when she suddenly collapsed. She was in her early twenties and later died in hospital, the company said.

While the cause of the employee’s death remains unknown, some Chinese netizens blamed the company and condemned its handling of events, with some even calling for a boycott of its platform.

Early on Monday morning, a post from one of Pinduoduo’s social media accounts downplayed the worker’s death saying: “Look at the people at the bottom — who is not trading life for money[?] . . . this is an era where we fight with our lives.” 

The post went viral, despite being quickly deleted, leading Pinduoduo to claim that it was a fake. However later on Monday, Zhihu, the social media platform on which the post was made, said it had come from Pinduoduo’s account, forcing the company to backtrack.

Pinduoduo went on to blame the errant post on an external agency employee, surnamed Li, who was mistakenly logged into its official Zhihu account. It “does not represent Pinduoduo’s official attitude”, the company said.

The employee’s death and Pinduoduo’s response were among the top five trending topics on Weibo on Monday. “Work one worker to death, find another worker to take the fall,” commented a user on the Twitter-like platform.

Chinese state media also reported that the social security bureau of the Shanghai district holding Pinduoduo’s headquarters was investigating labour conditions at the company.

Pinduoduo said: “We are heartbroken by Fei’s death and feel deeply for her family.” The company did not immediately respond to further questions for comment.

Nian Liu contributed reporting from Beijing

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