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Workers sit on duty at the headquarters of Pinduoduo, an e-commerce platform, in Shanghai on July 25, 2018.

The Associated Press

The anger of a young generation that is struggling with the workplace demands of China’s high-tech companies is flaring again, after a recently fired employee revealed that workers clock as many as 380 hours a month at an e-commerce giant where two employees recently died – one by suicide.

What is taking place amounts to “slavery of the smartest group of people in China,” said Wang Taixu, the pseudonym of a former front-end engineer at Pinduoduo who was fired after posting a picture of an employee being taken from the company’s Shanghai headquarters in an ambulance.

In a social-media video viewed nearly 50 million times in less than 24 hours, Mr. Wang describes regularly working past midnight in an office without enough toilets and with food sometimes served rotten. Many employees were expected to log 300 hours a month, he says, and managers in the grocery division demanded 380 hours a month. (A typical 40-hour work week amounts to less than 200 hours a month.) Pinduoduo, one of China’s biggest online sales platforms, did not directly dispute those figures and said it was not able to provide an average of work hours.

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“To use one sentence to describe this company, it doesn’t care for workers, just like all internet companies in China,” Mr. Wang says in his video.

In response, Pinduoduo accused Mr. Wang of expressing “extreme emotions” that could threaten his colleagues. The company said it would provide psychological services to its 7,000-person work force after one of its engineers fell 27 storeys to his death from his parents’ apartment building several days ago. A medical examiner said it was suicide.

What happens at the company has international implications, as Pinduoduo is traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange and was founded by Huang Zheng, a former Google engineer educated in the United States.

But it’s also the latest outcry from a generation that is cracking under intense workplace demands, even as China’s leaders tout the creation of a “moderately prosperous society.”

Over the past two years, university students have used Marxist thought to criticize factory conditions, lament the immense demands on delivery drivers and speak out against “996,” the 9 a.m.-to-9 p.m., six-day-a-week schedule made famous by telecommunications giant Huawei.

“There is a growing dissatisfaction with the excessive demands placed by employers, especially in the tech sector, on workers,” said Geoffrey Crothall, the communications director at China Labour Bulletin, a research and advocacy group dedicated to workers’ rights in China. “It’s kind of reminiscent of the work hours that factory workers had to endure a decade ago, during the boom era for low-end manufacturing in China.”

Those conditions attracted global attention in 2010, when 18 workers attempted suicide and 14 died at iPhone maker Foxconn.

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Little has changed in the decade since, Mr. Crothall said. “The administrative sanctions that the government can impose are very limited, and powerful employers can just ignore them.”

Nonetheless, Chinese internet users have lashed out at Pinduoduo, calling it a Foxconn for the e-commerce age after the death by suicide of the employee, who joined the company on July 8, 2020, as a technology development engineer. Pinduoduo said in a statement that it was “deeply sorry” and was waiting for local authorities to complete an investigation.

It was the second recent death of a Pinduoduo employee. On Dec. 29, Zhang Moufei, a 22-year-old worker in the company’s vegetable group, died suddenly after finishing a shift in the early morning hours.

Shanghai labour authorities launched an investigation into Pinduoduo, which raised an outcry when one of the company’s official social-media accounts published a statement derided as callous: “Look at those at the bottom [of society]. Which one of them does not exchange their lives for money?” The company apologized for what it said was an unapproved comment, saying instead of Ms. Zhang: “We love you and deeply miss you.”

Throughout this time, Mr. Wang was contemplating his own time at the company. Internet posts distributed by Pinduoduo include one in which Mr. Wang, writing under an account name he believed was anonymous, says he wishes the company would just “die right now.” That language amounted to a malicious violation of workplace codes of conduct, Pinduoduo said.

Mr. Wang, however, said he was asked to resign shortly after posting a photo of an employee being placed into an ambulance last week. He titled it “a second Pinduoduo fighter has fallen.” The company said the worker had experienced intestinal problems and has returned to work.

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But in the video he posted after he was fired, Mr. Wang commented on the irony of workers lining up to get a job at the company even as an employee was being taken out on his back. “I don’t think the world is supposed to be like this,” he said.

He pledged to contest his dismissal through labour arbitration, though he acknowledged his chances of success were slim.

Still, his description of the working conditions at Pinduoduo resonated broadly. For the country’s workers, “the root cause is there is no protection for us,” said Zeng Meng, a former Huawei worker who clashed with that company after disputing a severance package that did not include a year-end bonus. Though Chinese labour laws regulate hours that can be worked, those laws are rarely enforced and regularly overlooked.

The embrace of 996 by internet giants reflects extreme negligence of labour regulations, said a labour-rights observer in the southern high-tech hub of Shenzhen. The Globe and Mail is not identifying him because he has been told by local authorities not to speak with foreign media. Shenzhen alone counts tens of thousands of labour disputes every year, but society as a whole doesn’t really care about workers’ rights, he said.

Any labour union in China must be affiliated with the Communist Party-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which has been criticized for doing too little to protect workers.

Though the virtues of hard work have long been celebrated in China, Mr. Zeng compared the 300 hours a month expected at Pinduoduo with the lesser demands placed upon his own parents, who worked in state-owned enterprises that were less efficient but treated their employees more humanely. His father once came to visit while he was working at Huawei. “He couldn’t believe how late I came home,” said Mr. Zeng, who has not found a new job in the 2½ years since he was fired.

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“The Chinese government calls itself the Communist Party, saying it represents the pioneers of labour, the working class and the farmers,” he said. “But what we see is that the courts, the police and the legislative departments just protect Big Tech’s interests. They don’t care about the working class.”

He is not alone in turning to Marxist language to express his anger. Li Yichen, 21, a statistics student in his final year of university, has watched classmates take jobs at companies that demand long hours with little compensation for overtime. He hopes to avoid that fate.

“‘Exploitation’ and ‘capitalist’ are terms that used to disgust me,” he said. “But now I think it’s very appropriate to use these words to describe big internet companies that stress the importance of technology, capital and management – but don’t bother to respect fundamental morality.”

With a report from Alexandra Li

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