Surveillance to increase the productivity of tech employees, forced to work long hours

Beijing, China: In order to bring productivity-enhancing tools into everyday office life of techies in China, a software driven surveillance management and monitoring into their professional lives.
Nikki Sun for Nikkei Asia writes that rapid technological development in China’s tech industry is accompanied by poor labour regulations, which has created a potential for labour abuse. The big tech companies themselves, locked in cutthroat competition for new business opportunities, are pioneering these technologies and tools in their own operations.
Andy Wang, an IT engineer at a Shanghai-based gaming company, said that a surveillance software called DiSanZhiYan, or “Third Eye” was installed on the laptop of every employee to track their screens in real time, recording their chats, browsing activity and document edits.
After two years, an overwhelmed Wang eventually quit. “It does not make sense. We can’t work nonstop in the office. We need to take some breaks,” he said.
Scholars have warned that some practices can be unethical, like invading employees’ privacy and burdening them with greater workload and mental stress. They also drew parallel with the immense fatigue faced by factory labourers during the industrial revolutions.
Nikkei Asia reported that the harsh conditions synonymous with China’s sweatshop factory culture have come to be identified with the country’s technology companies, where workers often endure slavishly long hours to hit objectives set by big data analytics.
In Pinduoduo, a Shanghai-based e-commerce company that is the second-largest company in China, a 22-year-old female employee died in Decemeber 2020 after collapsing on her way back home from work. The company later said that one of its engineers jumped to his death, Nikkei Asia reported.
The same month, another employee who had posted a photo of a colleague being brought out of the office on a stretcher was identified and fired by the company.
“I don’t know if the company identified me through computer monitoring or through information provided by Maimai,” said the fired employee on Chinese social media site Weibo.
“Technologies are increasing the pace for people who work with machines instead of the other way around, just like what happened during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century,” said Nick Srnicek, a Lecturer in Digital Economy at the King’s College of London.
Though China has drafted laws to prevent tech companies’ extensive personal data collection on their users, there is little legal protection for the privacy of their workers, according to Samuel Yang, a lawyer.
In China, employee monitoring is being driven by competition, as tech giants compete in more areas from e-commerce and short videos to online finance and more, requiring employees to put in extra hours and come under great pressure, according to Nikkei Asia.
On the other hand, US federal laws prohibit an employer from intentionally intercepting employees’ oral, wire and electronic communications, although exemptions can be made if the employer can show there is a legitimate business purpose for doing so, writes Nikki Sun.
In the European Union (EU), employees enjoy better protection with the collection of their personal information requiring their consent.
In an absurd case, the Canon Information Technology in Beijing, unveiled a new workspace management system last year that only allowed smiling employees to enter the office and book conference rooms. Canon said the system intended to bring more cheerfulness to office in the post-pandemic era.
Zhongduantong, a Beijing-based software company, developed a work reporting mobile application that requires workers to check in at designated locations within a certain time frame and upload a picture of the surrounding environment as proof through the app. This led to a sales manager being fined for visiting a housing fund center for personal matters, reported Nikkei Asia citing Xinhua.
In another case, the positioning was so accurate that an employee in Shanxi Province was punished for browsing Weibo for 10 minutes in a company toilet.
In more controversial cases, technology was used to monitor the time workers spend in toilets. This was noted when Kuaishou Technology sparked an online backlash after the company was found to have installed a countdown timer above each of its office’s toilet cubicles.
Alibaba has also developed an internet-connected smart toilet system where an infrared detector is installed to monitor the occupancy and odor of each toilet cell.
Despite fierce criticism over such aggressive practices and complaints from employees, they have had little impact on investor sentiment, reported Nikkei Asia.
According to a 2020 report conducted by Maimai, the average age for employees at China’s top 20 internet companies is not even 30 years old.
Companies are running even more brutal working hours – ByteDance allows its employees a full weekend only every other week, while employees at Pinduoduo’s newer units are required to work at least 300 hours a month.