Caixin
Jul 27, 2020 08:18 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Update: Indian Court Subpoenas Jack Ma in Unfair Employee Dismissal Case

Jack Ma.
Jack Ma.

Alibaba said it’s hard to locate its retired founder Jack Ma after the billionaire was summoned by an Indian court over allegations that one of the company’s subsidiaries unfairly dismissed a local staff member.

The lawsuit comes just weeks after New Delhi launched a crackdown on Chinese apps, banning dozens including several operated by Alibaba.

According to court filings seen by Reuters, Pushpandra Singh Parmar, a former employee of Alibaba subsidiary UCWeb Inc., alleged that he was wrongfully fired after he objected to the e-commerce giant’s practices of censoring content and publishing fake news on its apps UC Browser and UC News. The plaintiff is seeking $268,000 in damages, Reuters reported.

Wang Shuai, chairman of Alibaba’s public relations committee, confirmed that UCWeb received the court notice and said the Indian unit is working on the issue according to relevant procedures. As for whether Ma knows he’s been sued and summoned by the court, Wang said Ma has retired and it’s hard to find him.

Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s executive chairman in September 2019, but he remains a lifetime partner of Alibaba Partnership, a group of a few dozen senior management members of Alibaba and its affiliates that has tremendous power over the company’s board and leadership.

The judge in the Gurugram district court subpoenaed Alibaba, Ma and several other people and company units to appear in court or through an attorney Wednesday, according to the documents seen by Reuters.

It’s very common for a plaintiff to list multiple defendants in India, and it’s up to the defendants to argue whether this is abuse of litigation rights, according to Li Qin, counsel of Link Legal, a law firm headquartered in New Delhi specializing in advising Chinese companies on investing in India.

Unlike courts in China that usually dismiss an allegation if they find certain defendants shouldn’t be held legally liable, Indian courts first summon all defendants, who can then file motions to dismiss the case, Li said.

“We can’t expect a local court in India to understand Ma has retired from Alibaba and has nothing to with the company,” Li said.

As the case is a civil action, if a defendant ignores a subpoena, the court may issue another subpoena at the request of the plaintiff, Li said. If the defendant still ignores it, the defendant generally goes on trial in absentia, he said.

Mas was listed as one of defendants probably because the plaintiff believes the Indian unit’s illegal actions happened when Ma was still executive chairman of Alibaba, Li said.

Parmar, who worked as an associate director at UCWeb’s office in Gurugram until October 2017, provided in his filing clippings of posts that circulated on the UC News app that he said spread falsehoods, including a 2018 post that said war had broken out between India and Pakistan, Reuters reported, citing the court filings. Reuters said it couldn’t independently confirm the content of Parmar’s filings, but there was no war between India and Pakistan in 2018.

Parmar also alleges that UCWeb had a “sensitive word list” that contained banned keywords in Hindi and English like “India-China border” and “Sino-India War,” according to the Reuters report.

“UCWeb has been unwavering in its commitment to the India market and the welfare of its local employees, and its policies are in compliance with local laws,” an Alibaba representative said in a statement emailed Monday to Caixin. “We are unable to comment on ongoing litigation.”

India banned 59 Chinese apps a month ago including UC News, UC Browser, TikTok and WeChat on national security grounds against the backdrop of deteriorating China-India relations in the wake of a deadly weeks-long border clash.

The ban led UCWeb, the operator of UC News and UC Browser, to lay off some of its employees in India, a market it entered nearly a decade ago, but whether the company will suspend local operations entirely remains uncertain. UCWeb also operates the short video app Vmate and the Android app store 9Apps in India.

In June, UC Browser was India’s second-most popular mobile browser after Google’s Chrome, with a market share of 10.19%, according to market research firm Statcounter.

Alibaba’s digital media and entertainment revenue totaled 26.95 billion yuan ($3.85 billion) in fiscal 2020, up 11.92% year on year, mainly from UCWeb and Youku, according to the company's financial report.

Contact reporter Denise Jia (huijuanjia@caixin.com) and editor Bob Simison (bobsimison@caixin.com)

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