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    Struggling Startup Wants to Reassign Staff to Remote Xinjiang

    Once investor darling, battery rental company Hidian is running out of funds, employees say.

    Shared battery company Hidian appears to be out of juice as media report that the company is making unreasonable demands of its employees in a bid to push them out the door.

    The saga started in mid-August, when an employee named Zhou Mao leaked notes showing Hidian asked him to relocate from his place of work in the southern Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen to remote Bole County in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a distance of 4,334 kilometers away. The company also said that it would slash Zhou’s salary by 55 percent to 1,800 yuan ($272) per month, bringing it in line with wage levels in Xinjiang, business newspaper Beijing Business Today reported Monday.

    “Please report to your new position within the next 24 hours. No transportation costs will be covered,” Hidian wrote in Zhou’s transfer notice. “If you fail to report within three days, we will consider this a resignation.”

    Founded in December 2016 by CEO Liu Wenyuan, Hidian makes money by leasing power banks to customers whose phones and other devices are running out of battery. Customers first use Hidian’s app to locate nearby available power banks. They then unlock one by scanning a QR code, before linking their devices to a pullout charging cable.

    Hidian used to be a promising player in China’s burgeoning shared economy. In May, online consultancy firm iiMedia Research predicted that the value of the shared battery market would reach 27.6 billion yuan ($4.16 billion) by the end of 2017. In the same month, the company’s was reportedly valued at 100 million yuan after two rounds of investment.

    Sixth Tone obtained a phone number said to be Liu’s by a former Hidian employee, but calls went unanswered on Tuesday.

    In addition to Zhou, Hidian asked other members of staff to transfer to far-flung border cities where the company doesn’t actually have registered branches. In an interview with Nanjing-based online media outlet iFeng, two employees said they were asked to transfer to remote areas like northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and Yunnan province in the country’s far southwest.

    “This is actually a covert way to force employees to resign,” iFeng quoted an employee as saying. Other workers have also questioned whether the company is forcing them out in order to balance the books.

    A Shanghai-based former Hidian employee told Sixth Tone that, since July, the company has ceased bonus payments and cut its promised basic monthly salary of 3,500 yuan. “Because they are running out of money, they fined all employees 1,000 yuan for missing power banks,” she said.

    The woman declined to give her name, citing privacy concerns as she is currently searching for work. The company didn’t care about who was actually responsible for the missing power banks and just wanted to cut wage costs, she added.

    She described Hidian’s behavior as “unreasonable,” saying that the company’s Shanghai headquarters now operates a skeleton staff of around 12 people, down from 61 when she initially joined Hidian in the spring.

    China’s labor laws stipulate that, in order to amend the content of workers’ contracts, all parties involved must come to a consensus on matters like job location and salary, Mao Shanshan, a Shanghai-based lawyer at Jincheng Tongda & Neal, told Sixth Tone.

    Mao believes Hidian’s behavior is both illegal and unreasonable. “First, the consensus principle has not been applied [in the above cases]. Also, transferring from Shenzhen to Xinjiang significantly hinders the ability to execute the contract, which is unreasonable.”

    Mao further explained that if the cases were taken to court, Hidian would probably be forced to pay compensation to its ousted former employees taking into account their previous salaries and years of service. Alternatively, the company could hire them back, provided that its former workers agreed to return.

    Editor: Colum Murphy.

    (Header image: Shared battery charging slots are seen in a mall in Beijing, April 14, 2017. Jin Wen/CFP)