IBM case highlights work pressures in China’s hi-tech industries

The 18 June award of over 57,000 yuan in compensation to an employee unfairly dismissed from computer giant IBM’s Shanghai subsidiary because of his medical condition is a landmark ruling in China.
Not only is it the first time a labour dispute arbitration committee (LDAC) has ruled in an employment discrimination case based on depression, but the publicity generated because of the high-profile defendant has highlighted the issue of mental illness and the intense pressure felt by many employees in China’s hi-tech industries.
University graduate, Yuan Yipeng joined IBM on a five year contract as a research and development engineer in June 2006. During his first year, Yuan voluntarily worked long hours until the pressure began to tell. He complained of tiredness and melancholia and in June 2007 was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Yuan offered to resign but the company placed him on sick leave. He sought a return to work when his condition improved but was refused. On 11 January 2008, following a meeting with high-level management, he reportedly suffered a mental breakdown and attempted suicide.
IBM formally dismissed Yuan on 27 February, alleging misconduct. Yuan responded with a claim in the Pudong LDAC alleging “depression discrimination.” The committee upheld his claim, ordered IBM to pay Yuan four months wages and reinstate his work contract.
Yuan’s is not the only attempted suicide at a major hi-tech corporation this year. In February and March, within the space of nine days, two employees at telecommunications giant Huawei jumped to their deaths at the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen. The suicides provoked intense online discussion about the pressures employees at Huawei and other hi-tech companies had to endure in order to succeed. See Is corporate “wolf-culture” devouring China’s over-worked employees?
The IBM case further highlights the seemingly uncaring attitude of major corporations towards employees with depression or those who simply find the pressure of the job too much. Many commentators have suggested that although highly paid white collar employees might reasonably be expected to work long hours and handle the pressures of the job by themseleves, corporations also have a duty of care towards their employees and should be more sympathetic towards signs of depression and mental illness.
Meanwhile, the Pudong LDAC should be applauded for ruling in line with provisions of the Labour Contract Law and Employment Promotion Law to redress the violation of an employee’s legal rights. All too often LDACs are reluctant to rule against major corporations or those with powerful local influence but the IBM case shows that some arbitration committees at least are willing to stand up to corporate power and defend workers’ rights on the basis of the law.
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