Earlier this year, efforts to unionize China’s seven million food-delivery drivers were battered by the arrests of Chen Guojiang, or “Mengzhu” to his thousands of social media followers, and a host of other prominent labor leaders. Drivers and couriers work long, dangerous hours and receive dismal pay, if they receive pay at all—an Ele.me courier’s self immolation over unpaid wages went viral in January. At Labor Notes earlier this month, Karl Hu wrote about the activism which led to Chen Guojiang’s detention:
Chen set up 16 chat groups on the popular Chinese social media app WeChat, reaching about 15,000 delivery workers over the last two years. A public Delivery Riders Alliance channel which he operates on the app provides free legal consultations and various kinds of assistance to delivery workers. This has included mediating disputes with restaurants and security guards, towing and repairs of motorbikes, negotiations with insurance companies, and even providing free or cheap accommodation for new arrivals to Beijing.
[…] Shortly before being detained, Chen launched an online campaign to denounce delivery platform Ele.me’s Spring Festival bonus program. In his latest video, published February 19, he recorded several Ele.me workers on strike to protest bonus rules set by the company, which they believed were intended to withhold a promised bonus.
This video was watched 9.6 million times online and the topic (similar to a hashtag on Twitter) was viewed more than 200 million times on Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms. This provoked great public criticism against Ele.me, which is owned by Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce company. Ele.me had to respond to public criticism, openly apologize to delivery workers, and promise to compensate them.
At NPR, Emily Z Feng profiled “Mengzhu,” and wrote about the lengths to which Beijing police went, quite literally, to silence him:
His family says two policemen traveled in March from Beijing to Mengzhu’s hometown in Bijie, a prefecture in remote southwestern Guizhou province. They brought with them a short detention notice informing the family that Mengzhu was being held in a police station in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, where he lived.
[…] Mengzhu dropped out of school in fifth grade, and at age 14, he left Bijie in search of work in China’s big cities, like many young men from his village. With savings from earlier delivery jobs, he opened two fast-food restaurants in Beijing. When they failed to turn a profit, he returned to delivery work and picked up video blogging and got involved with labor activism. He opened a cellphone accessory store in Beijing and ran a free shelter for other delivery workers who were new to the city.
[…] ”They can do everything to arrest you, fix you with a criminal charge, sentence you to years in prison, and you change nothing,” [Chen Guojiang] recounted last September, about his detention. “So do other delivery workers still dare [to complain]? Well, I dare.” [Source]
For more on Chen Guojiang’s activism, listen to Cornell University’s Eli Friedman, an expert on Chinese labor activism, on The Arts of Travel podcast. Mandarin speakers can listen to Mengzhu in his own words on the labor-focused podcast 打工谈 Dǎgōng tán.
At SupChina, Zixu Wang wrote about the backgrounds of China’s delivery drivers, 81.7% of whom are migrant rural laborers and 87.1% of whom don’t have a high school degree:
Chen’s arrest has thrown into stark relief the dilemma of labor activists in China. The Chinese Communist Party prohibits self-established labor unions and places scrutiny on workers’ associations such as Chen’s “online alliance.” Food delivery workers, who are considered part of the “gig economy” and often lack formal employment status, have it worse than most. They are more isolated and under constant pressure, pushed by their platforms’ algorithms to rush and work overtime. In 2020, 95% of couriers worked more than eight hours per day, 66.8% worked more than 11 hours, and 28% worked more than 12 hours, according to research by the Beijing Yilian Labor Law Center. The fact that these workers aren’t allowed to unionize only makes them more vulnerable.
“The combination of authoritarian and capitalistic exploitation makes a labor movement extremely difficult,” said Aidan Chau, a researcher at China Labor Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based NGO promoting workers’ rights in China. “Although China calls itself socialist, if bureaucrats think you’re disturbing the social order, they will come to suppress you.”
[…] Workers have few recourses. Multiple food delivery workers in Beijing and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, and Guangdong have told me about other difficulties of organizing. “If you strike, others will take advantage of it, taking more orders and making good money,” said Wáng Ruìgān 王瑞乾, a courier in Beijing. “There’s no shortage of people in the Chinese workforce.” [Source]
At Rest of World, Yi-Ling Liu wrote about how China’s delivery companies exploit drivers:
The low-level workers in China’s $97 billion food delivery sector are especially vulnerable to brutal working conditions and exploitative management practices for several reasons. First, the entire industry is locked in competition between two platforms. Meituan, backed by tech giant Tencent, controls 67% of the market share; Ele.me, owned by rival Alibaba, holds 31%. Having subsumed all other competitors (including Baidu’s delivery service), the two companies now fight over customers by offering steep discounts and cutting costs to the bone. This sometimes veers into open antagonism: Ele.me drivers are taught to chant the slogan “Kill Meituan, Ele.me is fighting with you.” In its early years, Meituan became known for cultivating a strategy of “gladiatorial entrepreneurialism,” which consisted of poaching employees and launching smear campaigns, and deployed “tactics that would make Travis Kalanick blush,” writes Kai-Fu Lee in his book AI Superpowers.
Cutthroat competition is not only baked into both companies’ cultures but is also embedded in the algorithms that underlie each platform. Meituan’s “Super Brain” and Ele.me’s “Ark” systems are driven by vast supplies of data collected on individual users, drivers, and their deliveries. “The more data collected,” explained Jeffrey Ding, an AI researcher at the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, “the more efficient and precise the algorithms [become].” Over time, these systems get better at allocating tasks, assigning routes, and optimizing deliveries. In turn, this encourages customers to order more takeout, prompts workers to move just a little faster, and provides platforms with even more information. Then, the cycle accelerates. In 2016, maximum delivery times were capped at 1 hour; by 2018, this was whittled down to 38 minutes. [Source]
The state cracks down on independent unions because all unions must be part of a state-run umbrella organization. The Economist covered the Chinese government’s attempts to absorb “gig workers” into the state-run All China Federation of Trade Unions:
The ruling Communist Party’s response has been to try to persuade gig workers to join a trade union. In 2015 China’s leader, Xi Jinping, launched a plan for “experimental reform” of the umbrella organisation to which all unions must belong, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). The full text was not released, but state media said the aim was to make the federation focus on concrete measures to help workers, and to reduce “instability”. It urged boosting membership among rural migrants, with apps to make it easier, hoping this would discourage protests. In 2018 the ACFTU said it would try extra hard to recruit eight groups of non-factory labourers, including food-delivery workers (around 7m people) and couriers (4m).
New unions for gig workers have struggled to make themselves appealing. The first was founded in Shanghai in 2018 with about 400 members. It offered workers instructions in traffic rules and sold them watermelons at a discount. Regardless of reforms, unions are a wing of the Communist Party, and union officials are considered civil servants, so they cannot do anything that goes against government policy, says Chris Chan of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Sometimes, a firm’s boss is also head of the union. “The most important task of local governments isn’t to protect workers’ rights, it is to maintain social stability and ensure economic development,” he says.
[…] Yet it remains distant from many workers. Of 350 delivery workers interviewed by Jenny Chan of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, not one knew what the federation does. In the decade before China’s clampdown on labour activism in 2015, the ACFTU engaged directly with workers, even experimenting with collective bargaining and running training sessions for workers in their factories. Now, says Mr Chan, as the party reasserts its dominance throughout society, union training for workers often happens at local “party-masses service centres”. It involves telling workers not to strike or protest and pointing them towards mediation or arbitration if they have gripes. Hotlines have also been set up. [Source]
On April 26, Chinese regulators opened anti-monopoly proceedings against food-delivery conglomerate Meituan, underscoring a contradiction in Chinese labor reforms: the state is intent on bringing powerful corporations to heel but unwilling to allow labor to exercise power towards that end. Meituan is just the second company to face fines under new anti-monopoly regulations (Alibaba was the first). However, regulators seem to be concerned with the company’s treatment of other business, not its own employees.
Recent crackdowns are not limited to labor—the state has tightened restrictions on feminist activists as well. The popular social media site Douban shut down a number of popular feminist groups, and Weibo “trolls” that targeted feminist activists for harassment were egged on by the company’s CEO. In an interview translated for the leftist Hong Kong website Lausan by Chin Kinnan and Hung X.L., an anonymous Chinese student organizer compared the Chinese feminist and labor movements:
These two movements operate very differently. When room exists for the feminist movement to grow, activists tend to engage in offline interventions, such as performance art. In general, however, they have always focused on theory. Performance art, in part, helps to shape the development of this discourse. The movement’s other focus is to promote and popularize feminism: Any conversation that touches on gender and sexuality is part of feminist activism.
The labor movement works differently. Labor organizations mostly focus on grassroots organizing. Most of this work cannot be moved online, and it is also difficult to train people remotely without first exposing new activists to the field. While many young people sympathize with workers, there remains a big gap between sympathy and action. Labor organizing takes patience, and can be extremely boring and dreary at times. Folks who cannot stand the loneliness often do not last long. It’s harder to have a sense of accomplishment now, because we can only execute small actions in the face of crackdown.
In addition to material restrictions, compared to our peers in the feminist movement, I must admit that organizers who work in labor organizing lack imagination for organizational work and worker empowerment. Right now, we are unable to provide a personalized process to recruit and onboard new activists online. [Source]
White collar workers also have gripes about labour conditions in China. China’s public holiday system—which forces workers to come in on weekends to make up for free days—is a target of particular ire. “The so-called five-day holiday is paid for by my Sunday. If there’s no time for these days off, then don’t give them to us,” said one Weibo user quoted by Sixth Tone. Unfair contracts are another complaint. A recent farce—a Russian man was “held hostage” on a Chinese boy band TV show after he failed to read the fine print of his contract—drew sympathy from broad swathes of the Chinese public who saw themselves in his struggle. Chafing against his contract, he intentionally tanked his performances, hoping to be voted off the show. Unfortunately for him, audiences loved his unvarnished disdain and kept him on the show for three months. He ultimately lost in the finals, writing, “I’m finally getting off work,” on his Weibo.
— Ashley Feinberg (@ashleyfeinberg) April 26, 2021