E-commerce workers who maintained China fed during the coronavirus pandemic, making their billionaire managers even richer, are so unhappy with their pay and treatment that one simply set himself on fire in protest.
China's internet industries already were known for lengthy, demanding times. With millions of families confined at home, demand surged and workers sent a lot of vegetables, meat, rice, diapers and other materials, frequently aboard scooters that subjected them to sub-freezing chilly cold.
For white-collar workers in the technology industry, pay is far better than in some sectors but workers are often expected to work 12 hours per day or longer.
The individual price caught public attention after the deaths of two workers from e-commerce platform Pinduoduo, known for promoting fresh produce at low prices. Their deaths prompted ideas that they were overworked.
Renewed concerns over dire working conditions for delivery drivers came to the forefront if a video circulated on Chinese social media showing what it said was a driver for Ele.me, part of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, putting himself on fire to protest unpaid wages.
The controversy is a blow to the image of internet industries which are transforming China's economy and creating new jobs. They've made a number of the creators among the world's wealthiest entrepreneurs.
In a video broadly circulated on Chinese social media, 45-year-old delivery motorist Liu Jin poured gasoline and set himself on fire outside a supply channel for Eleme from the eastern city of Taizhou, shouting that he wanted his cash. Others snuffed the flames and rushed him to a hospital, where he is being treated for third-degree burns on his body.
Details of Liu's criticism couldn't be verified and Eleme didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Separately, a 43-year-old shipping driver collapsed at work and expired last week whilst providing meals for Eleme.
The business explained in a statement it will provide 600,000 yuan ($92,700) into the driver's family and raised its own insurance coverage for drivers to that amount. Its announcement said Eleme"hadn't done enough in terms of accidental death insurance, also wants to do more."
The problem was emphasized again following a Pinduoduo worker surnamed Tan committed suicide after taking leave from the company to come back to his hometown, less than fourteen days after a 22-year-old worker surnamed Zhang in Urumqi collapsed while walking home from work with coworkers, and later passed away.
Pinduoduo,'' China's third-largest e-commerce firm, published statements saying it had been providing assistance and support to the families of the 2 employees who died. Shanghai authorities also are reviewing working hours, contracts and other states at the corporation.
The deaths raised an outcry on social media, with many folks imagining they had been a result of overwork. Chinese social networking users blasted the nation's technology industry, criticizing not just Pinduoduo to get a culture of long hours however pointing out that this was an industry-wide issue, using similar business cultures seen at most of China's big tech companies.
They also revived a national debate within the tech industry's so-called"996" working civilization, where employees often operate from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days every week. Businesses sometimes pay huge bonuses to your employees, enticing them to work more .
"We have to strive to be successful in pursuit of fantasies, but the legitimate rights and interests of employees cannot be disregarded or even violated," stated Ms Xinhua News Agency at a post on microblogging website Weibo.
If they don't meet deadlines, fines levied can vary from as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) to as much as 500 yuan ($77.30) if a client lodges a complaint.
As part of this gig economy, such delivery workers frequently do not get the advantages provided to full-time workers, such as medical or social insurance.
Since there are lots of people prepared to operate under those conditions, it is hard for workers to negotiate better pay and conditions.
Last August, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) -- that the sole trade union permitted to legally exist at communist-ruled China -- stated that 6.5 million delivery workers had joined it since 2018. On the other hand, the employee rights group China Labor Bulletin, which tracks labor relations in China, says little has been done to enhance employees' ability to acquire better treatment from companies. The union provides just skills training, legal assistance and a few medical benefits.
"Labor unions need to become more effective, otherwise labor laws can't be enforced," said Li Qiang, founder of China Labor Watch, a separate firm that monitors labor rights.
Under China's labour laws, employees and laborers should work no longer than eight hours daily, or over 44 hours a week on average. Total amount of overtime shouldn't exceed more than 36 hours in a month, and should just be done"after consultation with the trade union and laborers".
But, even though the labor laws exist, they are seldom enforced as employees become mired in a culture of overwork while trying for bonuses or in cases of delivery drivers, to eke out a living.
Delivery workers are a part of a company culture where even white-collar employees in the technology industry work excessively long hours, Li noted.
"Employees who do not work overtime cannot endure in technology or extra-curricular jobs. Everyone is working overtime. When they do not work , they will be terminated," Li explained.
Putting employees at an even bigger disadvantage, indemnity clauses are at times written into employees' contracts in some businesses, absolving a business from responsibility for passing at work and similar events, said Li of China Labor Watch. Although such exemptions can violate China's labour legislation, the legal system in China is opaque and laws can be difficult to enforce.
"In Western countries, if an employee dies due to working overtime, then the legal and financial costs will be greater, and they're generally more restrained as the nation's legislation will intervene," said Li. "But in China, there is no bottom line when it comes to working overtime, and employers are generally not held liable in the event of death."