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In China, delivery workers struggle against a rigged system

Illustration by Alex Santafé

In mid-February, Chén Guójiāng 陈国江, who leads an alliance of food delivery workers in China numbering in the thousands, confronted the delivery platform Ele.me, owned by Alibaba, for its exploitative policies. He published a video accusing Ele.me of failing to deliver on holiday bonuses it had promised — a video that garnered half a million views. Ele.me issued a statement of apology.

A week later, on February 25, police raided an apartment where Chen lived with other delivery drivers and took them in for questioning. Some were released, but Chen was charged with “picking quarrels.”

“Picking quarrels is the crime of choice for Chinese authorities who want to arbitrarily criminalize any speech that they don’t like,” said William Nee of the U.S.-based NGO Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “In recent years, the government has particularly targeted anyone with a capacity to organize and mobilize exploited people in the working class.”

Chen managed 16 WeChat groups for 8,000 food delivery workers in Beijing and had 14,000 workers on his contacts across China, according to media reports. His group, the “Alliance of Food Delivery Riders Among Rivers and Lakes” (外送江湖骑士联盟 wàisòng jiānghú qíshì liánméng), borrows the phrase “Rivers and Lakes” from martial arts fiction, referring to a chivalrous social system beyond authorities’ control.

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.”

Strikes among food delivery workers

Chen was hardly the first food delivery worker to attempt to organize. On March 4, 2019, 27-year-old Ms. Zuo, a food delivery worker and mother of three, went on strike. Earlier that year, Ele.me had deducted the amount of money couriers would get for each delivery by 2 yuan. Two RMB is only $0.30, but it represented a 20% pay cut. Zuo rode an electronic bike through Shijiazhuang, the capital city of Hebei province, asking every delivery worker she saw to join the strike.

That day, there were more than five assemblies in the city. Fearing repercussions, the workers didn’t shout slogans or hold banners, but merely gathered in front of shopping malls and food courts, refusing to pick up bills allocated by Ele.me.

“Who isn’t afraid of the police? But we must resist,” said Zuo, who asked me not to use her full name. (She was one of the organizers but not the initiator.)

But the strike couldn’t sustain itself. Police eventually got around to questioning the petitioners. “The organizer’s WeChat was censored; there was no response from Ele.me,” Zuo said. “If I continued to strike, my family would starve to death.”

This Shijiazhuang strike was one of 45 recorded strikes by food delivery workers in 2019, according to China Labor Bulletin. But then in 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there were only three recorded strikes. After China recovered — partly thanks to delivery workers, who were hailed as heroes — couriers found it harder to organize due to new regulations on food delivery platforms and heightened scrutiny from authorities.

Strikes by food delivery workers in China from 2016 to 2021, via China Labor Bulletin

In January, a 45-year-old delivery driver for Ele.me set himself on fire to protest unpaid wages. The Chinese public was outraged. After all, a few months prior, Ele.me and Meituan, owned by Tencent, had both written open letters to the public promising better working conditions for their employees. And yet, Meituan explicitly states that workers who go on strike, protest, or assemble would be dismissed, even though all these conducts are protected under Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution.

“Despite my disappointment with the platform, I don’t dare complain too much, because I rely on it to make a living,” Zuo said.

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.”

Moreover, food delivery workers often work on a freelance basis, as stipulated on contracts. Some platforms also require workers to download an App called Dinggehuo that registers workers as individual businesses.

“As a group, the lack of a strong legal tie between workers — unlike in factories — makes it hard to defend their rights as a collective,” said researcher Chau.

A day in the life of a Beijing delivery driver

A small hope for the future of labor organization in China

Beijing Yilian’s research estimates that among the 7 million food delivery workers in China, more than two-thirds are under 35 years old, 81.7% are migrant workers from rural areas, and 87.1% don’t have a high school diploma. It’s the classic portrait of the Chinese working class. Among this group, there is more labor unrest than people think.

Thousands of workers in textile and manufacturing industries have gone on strike against low wages, poor working conditions, and inadequate safety protections. In the past five years, the China Labor Bulletin’s Strike Map has documented 8,014 strikes (those from construction workers make up 42%).

Strikes from all industries since 2016, via China Labor Bulletin

According to Chinese labor law, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is the country’s only legal labor union, led by the Chinese Communist Party. Every grassroots union should be established under its umbrella and control. Chau said this contradictory structure — a labor union controlled by the state while claiming to represent workers — makes it difficult for workers when their interests are inconsistent with the state’s. A “labor union” may even try to discourage workers from defending their rights.

In the past, some labor NGOs have helped striking workers negotiate with companies. But in 2015, authorities detained and prosecuted dozens of NGO workers, effectively crippling the industry. Another significant crackdown on labor NGOs happened in 2018, when nearly a hundred activists were detained after advocating for a factory strike in Shenzhen.

This incident made headlines after dozens of students from Marxist clubs at several top universities in Beijing were arrested for advocating on the front lines. The incident put the Chinese government in a difficult position. State media Xinhua News waited a month before calling the incident an “ill-intentional disturbance” that was “incited by foreign powers.”

But this “Jiashi Incident” showed what is possible. For many labor rights experts and activists, such as Chau, it was a positive sign for the future of China’s labor awareness. A social media hashtag from earlier this year — “college friends of delivery works” — was another positive development. The phrase was a reference to Jeon Tae-il, a South Korean labor activist who set himself on fire in Seoul in 1970 to protest poor working conditions in factories. Jeon had said he hoped a college-educated friend could help him understand the country’s labor law.

“Many people have the stereotype that all Chinese people are brainwashed by the Communist Party’s propaganda, but that’s not true,” Chau said. “We’ve seen a new group of young people put roots in left-wing advocacy.”

But optimism doesn’t take hold easy. Two years after participating in a strike, Ms. Zuo, the delivery worker in Shijiazhuang, still relies on food delivery platforms to earn a living. I asked her if she thought society would improve.

“No,” she said decisively. “Society is never equal. It’s the law of the jungle. The poor are suppressed by the rich, who have power. From ancient times until now, it has always been like this.”

“So why did you go on strike?” I asked.

“I wanted to try, even like a mantis trying to stop a chariot,” she said. “I think people still need to live with dignity.”

‘Dance of Delivery’: Chinese delivery drivers, oil on canvas