Time to better protect workers of online firms

The Pinduoduo logo is seen in this photo taken July 17, 2018. (Photo: Agencies)

Editor's note: The sudden death of a 23-year-old woman after fainting on her way back home from work has sparked a heated public debate, with many criticizing the overwork culture in the rapidly expanding e-commerce sector, especially because some tycoons once supported the "996" schedule (working from 9 am to 9 pm, six days a week) in 2019. Three experts share their views with China Daily's Yao Yuxin on how to strengthen employees' rights in the internet age. Excerpts follow:

'996' working schedule is against labor laws

A 23-year-old female employee of China's online group discounter Pinduoduo Inc fainted on her way home at 1:30 am on Dec 29 in Urumqi, capital of Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. She later died after six hours of emergency treatment in a local hospital.

More than one year ago, it was shocking to hear e-commerce tycoons Liu Qiangdong of JD and Jack Ma of Alibaba publicly support the "996" working schedule to push their employees to work harder.

No wonder the death of the Pinduoduo employee in Urumqi has stirred up a fierce nationwide debate on the overwork culture, though the reason for her death still needs to be identified.

Capital by its very nature seeks profit. Some entrepreneurs try to seek maximum profits by forcing workers to work to their limits.

Labor relations in essence are about workers' rights and interests. Yet many entrepreneurs and top executives tell their workers that they should be grateful for the jobs. And in essence, they should keep the companies' profit-making engine running.

In the digital economy sector, in particular, a growing number of enterprises have been using different methods to exercise ever-increasing control over their employees. For instance, thanks to the algorithms used by many internet companies, there is less time for employees to rest.

To correct the situation, it is imperative that the country bring in specific legislation on internet enterprises, especially in terms of labor contracts and work schedules, and make it clear that the "996" working schedule is illegal.

The authorities should also tighten supervision, and intervene in any situation where employers flout the labor laws. It's good to see labor and social security regulators in Changning district of Shanghai, where Pinduoduo is headquartered, joining the investigation against the company for allegedly violating labor and working hour norms.

Chang Kai, a professor at the School of Labor and Human Resources, Renmin University of China

Death due to overwork needs legally definition

There are many reasons why people die due to overwork. The weak medical check-up system for employees is one of them.

By over-glorifying "hard work", many enterprises around the country have been ramping up efforts to make overtime work compulsory and make their employees feel the arrangement is reasonable. Worse, the lenient punishment for violating labor laws has emboldened many companies to impose draconian working schedules for their workers, in order to make maximum profits.

Work pressure and long working hours can play havoc with workers' physical and mental health, making them more vulnerable to occupational and stress-related diseases.

But it is difficult to prove that a person died due to overwork. Only a person who dies at the workplace or succumbs to a sudden illness within 48 hours of getting off work is considered a victim of work, making his/her family eligible to claim compensation. For example, it may be hard to prove that the 23-year-old woman was a victim of overwork because she died on her way back home from work and without showing symptoms of any illness.

Such loopholes in legislation must be plugged. And like Japan, China should issue guidelines explaining in detail what constitutes death due to overwork.

Yu Shuhong, a professor at the School of Law, Wuhan University

Leading a tension-free life is not being lazy or decadent

The 23-year-old woman is not the first tragedy of its kind. Such cases have been reported from time to time in recent years. Many have mourned the death of the young woman, but a large percentage of them may not know that this has become the "state of existence" for a large number of people.

Yet many entrepreneurs are either indifferent to such tragedies or just take it for granted that such incidents are inevitable. They believe the "996" working schedule is the only way to success, with some arguing it's the only way to economic growth and national prosperity.

It's time for the society to reflect whether it is necessary for people to risk their health or even lives for survival in this age of scientific and technological advancement and great achievements in social, political and legal fields. More important, it's wrong to call a person decadent and lazy just because he or she wants to live a slow-paced tension-free life.

Sun Liping, a professor at the School of Social Sciences, Tsinghua University