While marching forward in its ambition to bolster the rural agricultural economy, Pinduoduo Inc., China's third-largest ecommerce platform, after Alibaba and JD.com, is being probed by the local authority regarding its working condition. 

In the western region of Xinjiang, a 22-year-old female employee, whose surname was Zhang, died last week after working past mid-night at Duo Duo Maicai, a community group buying unit of Pinduoduo.

The news went viral online over the weekend. Without citing evidence, netizens angrily attributed the death to overtime work, criticizing the ubiquitous "996" work culture, where employees work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. 

Pinduoduo confirmed Monday that Zhang collapsed around 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 29 while walking home from work with a colleague. After being sent to a hospital in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, she died six hours later. The company's statement didn't disclose the cause of death.

"If a person has a medical emergency while at work and dies within 48 hours," Feng Minghao, a lawyer and partner at JunHe law firm, told local online magazine Sixth Tone. "The circumstances can be deemed 'death from work.'" Feng however said he could not comment on cases involving specific companies.

Aside from the standard of 40 hours per week, employees are allowed to extend work hours by up to three hours for special or emergent reasons, but the limit is more than 36 hours of overtime in a month, according to China's Labour Law.

The labor protection department in Shanghai's Changning District, where Pinduoduo is registered, said it is "looking into the company's labor conditions, employment contracts as well as working hours."

Zhang, who majored in communication engineering at Xi'an University of Posts & Telecommunications, joined Pinduoduo this July through a campus recruitment. She was assigned to Duo Duo Maicai's Xinjiang outlet in early December. Her job was to recruit community group buying leaders, who play critical role for e-commerce companies to expand business amid local community markets.

"She was bright and responsible," Zhang's former university classmate told YiMagazine. "Occasionally she complained on WeChat about working overtime." The classmate added that working for a "renowned internet company" like Pinduoduo was seen as enviable among graduates.

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically altered the way of grocery shopping. In response to the surging demand, Duo Duo Maicai was introduced in August, 2020, starting with Wuhan and Nanchang provinces, and invested heavily in developing regional and national logistics systems.

"The online grocery business is hard and is a 'touchstone' for the company," said Colin Huang, the founder and chairman of Pinduoduo last October on the eve of the company's fifth anniversary. Colin added that many company employees have to work at unconventional hours so that consumers can pick up fresh agricultural products before meal time.

With only about ten employees, the team Zhang worked with in the Xinjiang outlet reportedly had charge of as many as 2,000 pick-up locations, as well as managing warehousing, allocation, logistics and even customer complaints.  

According to the company's fiscal report, as of October last year, Pinduoduo had nearly 7,000 employees. For the 12 months ended September 30, 2020, Pinduoduo's revenue generated nearly 1.5 trillion yuan gross merchandise value and yielded 731 million annual active users, coming in second behind Alibaba's 757 million.

"We attribute the strong user engagement to improving user frequency on the back of the newly launched Duo Duo Maicai in late third quarter," according to a report this morning by Piyush Mubayi, research analyst of Goldman Sachs. 

As the company continues rapid expansion with lower cost, it has initiated a smart agriculture competition last year. "The competition gathers top minds in AI and agronomy worldwide to develop growing methods that can generate the highest yield, while economizing on inputs, such as labor, " said David Liu, Pinduoduo Vice President of Strategy on the company's Q3 2020 Earnings Call.