The E-Commerce Entrepreneurs Who Are Literally Working Themselves To Death

The E-Commerce Entrepreneurs Who Are Literally Working Themselves To Death

ALYSON SHONTELL JUL. 29, 2013, 3:39 PM 8,902 17

Running an online business can be difficult. It can also be life-threatening. In China, there’s been a spike in the number of overworked employees who have dropped dead, particularly in the e-commerce space. One company that’s becoming infamous for its worker death toll is Taobao, a Chinese e-commerce platform that resembles eBay. Merchants can post items on their own Taobao storefronts. They’re in charge of everything from keeping inventory and shipping items to updating the website and communicating with customers. But when their businesses take off, the work load can become too much. In July 2012, 24-year-old “Aijun aj” who was running a store on Taobao died of cardiac failure. She wasn’t the first or the last. Aijun’s death was preceded by a mother who ran a store on Taobao and a 25-year-old who ran another highly-rated online shop. Being overworked doesn’t directly kill you. It leads to a series of poor health decisions, such as irregular diets, chronic stress, lack of exercise, and exhaustion, which can cause heart issues like Aijun’s, blood clots and more.Since the death of Aijun, other Taobao shopkeepers have expressed how grueling maintaining an online business can be.

“I miss my sleep,” one Taobao store owner told China’s YouthDaily. “Although I hired someone to help me with customer service, things are never done. I still have to do the restocking, customer service, delivery, photography, web page design and information editing. As a result, I have to sacrifice my sleep.”

Another described the madness of maintaining growth. “I often talk to 15 to 20 customers at once,” Su Yuli tells YouthDaily. “Whether you are on your way to the post office to take delivery or sitting on the toilet, you have to be [communicating with Taobao customers].”

A survey produced by Taobao last year showed its sellers often work 10-15 hours per day, YouthDaily reports. And another survey from 2011 of Taobao’s store managers cited by Epoch Times is even more startling:

“38 manager/owners, or more than 50 percent, had cervical abnormalities. 37 manager/owners, or 94 percent of the female manager/owners, had hyperplasia of mammary gland. 35 percent, or 26 managers/owners, were diagnosed with hyperopia. Chronic pharyngitis, dyslipidemia, fatty liver disease, and thyroid abnormality were confirmed in 21, 19, 18, and 17 managers/owners, respectively.”

Since Taobao is a platform, not an employer of the over-worked, it can’t be blamed when its users push themselves too hard. But Taobao is trying to help find a solution.

“No matter how important your career is, do not neglect your health, especially during these hot summer days,” it warned its shopkeepers after Aijun’s death.

Still, the number of e-commerce related health issues and deaths in China are on the rise. More than 50,000 surveyed online shop owners reported having regular headaches, aches, and pains, ChinaDaily reports. A 2012 study cited by Epoch Times found that 600,000 people die suddenly from being over-worked each year.

The most recent incident occurred last week, when 36-year-old Taobao shop owner Wu Lijun died of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, a blood clot in the brain. Lijun ran one of Taobao’s most popular skincare businesses. A May article, “The Top Ten Sudden-Death-Prone Industries,” listed “Taobao shopkeeper” as the tenth most fatal career. Again, Taobao alerted its users to the dangers of working excessively.

Exhaustion-induced fatalities have occurred outside the e-commerce industry too. In May, an advertising employee at Ogilvy China suffered a fatal heart attack. Blogs and tweets were quick to blame it on too much work; the man reportedly spent 30 days leading up to his death working until 11 PM.

While companies like Taobao can help create awareness for the work-induced deaths, it’s up to its merchants to know when to pump the brakes.

“Why does a day only have 24 hours? I want to be a rechargeable robot,” Aijun lamented once online.

Shortly after, she was dead.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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