Big Tech dilemma: Overwork culture ‘still needed’
Published: Jan 06, 2021 08:13 PM

Pinduoduo Photo: CFP

Daisy Liu (pseudonym), a senior executive at China's e-commerce giant Pinduoduo, said she feels sorry for the recent sudden death of a 23-year-old employee working late at her company.

As the young employee's death has caused heated public debate on the prevalent "overwork culture" in China's booming tech industry, several staff members of tech giants and labor economists reached by the Global Times said candidly that overtime work is hard to eliminate as it is still needed in China's current fast-developing, high-pressure but well-paying IT industry.

Pinduoduo, in public spotlight this week because of the employee's death, was not born in the golden age of the internet development but "became one of the fastest listed e-commerce companies in the history of the internet," Liu told the Global Times.

"The process was fraught with too much bitterness," she said. "Although we have been trying to improve efficiency, gaining market share in a short time is still the principal pathway for Pinduoduo to survive and develop, which requires a lot of hard work and dedication from our staff." 

"None of the industry magnates we see today came out of nowhere and succeeded easily," Liu told the Global Times.

Kuaishou, one of China's most popular short video-sharing platforms, announced in December 2020 that all its employees would start a "long and short week schedule" from January 10, 2021. It means that staffers have to work six days a week, and then five days a week, alternatively, which is counted as normal working time, not overtime. 

The combination of the long and short week schedule has actually been implemented for a long time in most departments within the company, said a Kuaishou HR staffer who preferred to be called Sun Wenwen. 

"We usually hear from candidates about overtime work during recruitment interviews, and considering their willingness to embrace excessive work hours as part of our approval criteria," Sun told the Global Times.

Most of Kuaishou's employees have no public complaints about working long hours, as they enjoy "competitive annual salary" and "enviable employee benefits" including free working meals, free gyms and holiday gifts, Sun said. "Those have effectively enhanced employees' sense of accomplishment and belonging," she added. 

China's mushrooming tech firms in recent years have created numerous jobs, and continued to attract employees with decent payment, said Feng Xiliang, dean of the School of Labor Economics under the Capital University of Economics and Business. 

People working in the tech industry, which includes information transmission, software and information technology services, enjoyed the highest annual average wage of 161,352 yuan ($24,977) in 2019, higher than 131,405 yuan of the formerly popular financial industry, according to data from the National Statistics Bureau.

"Nonetheless, the hourly wages of tech industry employees are actually not high taking their long working time into account," Feng told the Global Times, calling for a standardization and improvement in tech firms' overwork mechanism, including the intensity, duration and pay. "The bottom line is that it should ensure protection of employees' life and health."

In Pinduoduo, changing the internal structure and processes to create a more flexible, efficient work environment that makes employees feel more dignified has become a pressing issue for top management, Liu said. "People's energy is limited," she added.