Translation: Detention of Takeout Driver Advocate Highlights Digital-era Labor Abuses

Amid the ongoing pandemic, the services provided by food delivery platforms have become a lifeline for many shut-in or socially distanced consumers, in China and elsewhere. Despite the newfound essentiality of delivery drivers and the relative viral risk they now assume globally, an increasing number of them are struggling to make ends meet as overworked freelancers in the gig economy. In China, the revelation of recent labor abuses by deliver app companies and the detention of an anonymous online labor advocate has served to highlight the plight facing these workers.

Citing two March 1 entries on China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map of food delivery app workers’ strikes in Shenzhen and Tongxiang, Radio Free Asia reports that the recent detention of an unofficial industry labor leader—along with the low pay and poor working conditions he had been speaking publicly about—contributed in leading the workers to protest. From Xiaoshan Huang and Han Qing, who quote other workers’ claims that the strike campaign is ongoing and spreading:

The strike comes after Xiong Yan, who headed an unofficial union formed by workers for the food delivery app Ele.me and other services, was detained in last month. His whereabouts are still unknown.

According to several people familiar with the situation, Ele.me workers have been on a go-slow or refusing to work at all since Xiong’s “disappearance,” resulting in a sharp rise in timed-out orders.

A person familiar with the situation who gave only a surname, Zhang, said Ele.me riders are considering a nationwide strike on Monday to protest the platform’s treatment of riders and Xiong’s presumed detention.

[…] Another person close to the situation, Hong Tao, said more riders were taking part in the “sabotage” campaign on Wednesday, but that it was hard to estimate the scale of the action.

[…] According to a post on WeChat Moments by a Beijing-based delivery rider surnamed He, as many as 10,000 delivery riders in more than a dozen groups were involved in the campaign. [Source]

Last month, the Los Angeles Times’ Alice Su reported the story of a disgruntled Taizhou-based Ele.me delivery driver’s lunch hour protest by self-immolation, and the lackluster gig economy labor conditions that, combined with eroding spaces for expression, advocacy, and protest in China, led him to stage the grisly public demonstration. The report also mentioned the online advocacy of the driver who would be detained on February 25:

That act of protest and desperation was filmed by bystanders and went viral online. It drew attention to the harsh lives of delivery drivers at the bottom of a highly competitive gig economy. China has made an impressive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, but the man’s self-immolation was a reminder of how difficult the past year has been, especially for blue-collar workers, many of whom are rural migrants who have restricted access to urban social services.

[…] “For food delivery workers, protests basically disappeared,” said Aidan Chau, a researcher at China Labour Bulletin, a rights group that found a dramatic decline in protests by food delivery workers, from 57 in 2018 to 45 in 2019 to only three in 2020. “Nobody is going to strike now, because if you protest you will just be sacked and a bunch of workers will replace you instantly.”

[…] Some drivers have begun advocating for themselves. One Ele.me driver recently started posting videos explaining drivers’ problems. He has started an informal coalition of takeout drivers called the Jianghu Knights of Takeout Alliance, a reference to ancient Chinese martial arts novels in which wandering vigilante “knights,” usually from lower social classes, fight for justice.

“What we delivery drivers need is not your pity or sympathy,” he said in one selfie video, filmed as he walked along a canal in his blue helmet and delivery uniform. He gave no name, referring to himself only by his “alliance leader” username. “This is just how the world is. No work is easy. But we should get the respect and fair, rational treatment that we deserve.” [Source]

In addition to evoking the chivalrous and righteous wandering martial artists of wuxia stories, “Jianghu Knights of Takeout Alliance” (外送江湖骑士联盟) may also be a reference to the movement’s national ambition (jiānghú 江湖, literally “rivers and lakes,” often means “all corners of the land” or nationwide).

On March 1, Chinese news outlets reported on the February 25 detention of a pseudonymous Chinese takeout delivery driver who had been vocally advocating on behalf of his fellow delivery workers online. RFA’s Chinese coverage reported that the driver, who they referred to as Xiong Yan, was detained in Beijing. According to a now deleted (but accessible via Google cache) report from mainland outlet Lanjing TMT, a driver going by “Chen Sheng” was detained with several other organizers of an informal labor advocacy group, and that two others detained had been released. In the article, Chen is quoted discussing his advocacy work at an earlier press conference:

Currently, Chen Sheng’s Weibo, Kuaishou, and Douyin accounts haven’t been updated for several days. Reporters’ attempts to contact Chen on WeChat have yielded no responses.

In a recent interview with Lanjing TMT and other media, he said that he currently has 16 WeChat groups in Beijing and over 14,000 friends on the platform, comprised of 99.99% drivers—including some people who are either about to become or used to be a driver. Reporters note that he has 45,000 fans on Douyin and 72,000 on Kuaishou.

“What I’ve said basically represents the opinion of 70% of us takeout brothers,” Chen explained. “And it isn’t because I have this or that ability, I don’t think so. It’s because they tend to trust me, I’ve been fighting for reasonable demands for us all on the internet, for the interests of drivers as a collective. So, they are more willing to trust me.”

In Chen’s view, few are able to express the true voice of takeout drivers, and even if a few try to it quickly disappears in the crowd. “Nobody pays attention to you.” […]

Currently, Chen Sheng is responsible for all operations of the self-media accounts, including filming, editing, etc., asnd is receiving an income of between 1,000 and 2,000 yuan. According to [the account] description, his video content is made to convey the drivers’ voice to the outside world and express their demands.

“I hope that someday, drivers and executives of the takeout platforms can stand together, talk to each other openly and frankly about their problems, and discuss how the relationship between driver and platform can become more appropriate, more reasonable,” Chen said. [Chinese]

The report also noted that chat records from February 24—the day before his detention—indicated that “Chen” expected to soon be dealing with authorities: “If I say nothing tomorrow, take that as proof that something is wrong. If I can speak, all is well.”

Coverage of “Chen’s” detention from Protocol points to a February 17 video he posted detailing Alibaba-owned Ele.me’s efforts to thwart paying out a promised holiday overtime bonus scheme aimed to discourage workers from returning home for the Lunar New Year. On February 19, the issued an apology that was widely seen as insincere. Phoebe Zhang reported last month for the South China Morning Post:

Under its system of incentives, the company offered rewards for completing a set number of deliveries over seven different phases starting on January 11 and running until the end of the month. Drivers receive extra cash if they hit the target for three of the seven-day periods and could make 8,200 yuan ($1,264) if they complete the full set.

[…] “You need to complete 380 deliveries, but I only got 23 deliveries in more than eight hours,” [a driver] said. [to Beijing News].

[…M]any web users did not buy into Ele.me’s apology and expressed scepticism that it would improve working conditions for the couriers.

“For you, 8,200 yuan may be half a month’s salary, but for the couriers, they had to earn it with massive deliveries at the expense of not going home this year,” one comment said. “This is disgusting.”

“Why can’t you just raise their compensation in general during the ?” another asked. [Source]

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