China’s gig economy workers employed by online platforms, including deliverymen and ride hailing drivers, should be encouraged to form unions to boost their negotiating power with Big Tech, the country’s government-backed union said.
The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which answers to the Chinese Communist Party and is the only legal labour union in China, issued “opinions” this week calling for better protection of labour rights in China’s gig economy, which is estimated to provide around 200 million jobs in the country.
The state labour union made the call at a time when Beijing is turning up the heat on the country’s big technology platforms, including criticising them for exploiting workers. One recent opinion piece in an official newspaper affiliated with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the country’s top political advisory body, even used concepts direct from Karl Marx to take a jab at China’s internet platforms.
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On-demand services providers such as Meituan and Ele.me, and ride-hailing companies like Didi Chuxing, have employed millions of employees on a temporary basis. However, labour protections for those “employed in a flexible manner”, are often limited compared with full-time employees and the negotiating power of these workers is usually weak.
Grievances have been rising among these new types of workers, and Beijing has not hesitated to raise its concerns about the potential for social unrest with Big Tech. The Hong Kong-based NGO China Labour Bulletin (CLB) recorded 131 cases of food delivery worker protests between 2016 and 2021.
High profile cases of gig workers seeking better rights have hit the headlines recently, including the dramatic self-immolation of a delivery worker at Alibaba Group Holding-backed food delivery platform Ele.me in January. Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.
“The state has praised the achievements of these big platform companies in the past, about how they have pushed the economy into a more hi-tech direction,” said Aidan Chau, researcher at CLB. “But in the meantime, the platforms have come to control a large amount of data generated by workers and consumers, often neglecting the lives of their workers as they conquer new industries.”
More than 95 per cent of food delivery workers work more than 8 hours a day, with 28 per cent clocking up more than 12 hours a day, according to a 2020 survey conducted by Beijing Yilian Labor Law Centre, a non-government organisation.
Beijing has recently upped the ante on tech firms, with eight government departments lecturing representatives of online ride-hailing providers over payment practices in May. The government has also been pushing tech platforms to provide basic welfare benefits to part-time employees.
At the same time though the Chinese government has maintained a strict ban on any kind of spontaneous labour union formation or strikes by gig economy workers. The Chinese authorities also arrested one of the most prominent gig worker activists, delivery worker Chen Guojiang, who had repeatedly called on fellow food deliverymen to take group action. He is currently awaiting trial on several charges, including credit card fraud and “provoking trouble”.
The state labour union submitted proposals on strengthening the protection of gig workers in March 2021 during the Two Sessions, the country’s most important political event. Despite the political pressure, not all analysts are convinced that the latest “opinions” will radically change the situation for gig workers.
“The union will not challenge the informal or flexible labour arrangement of these workers,” said CLB’s Chau. “Worker competition with each other will continue to be intense and their sense of insecurity will likely persist.”
This article ‘Gig workers of all trades, unite!’ China’s state trade union calls for branches for gig economy workers first appeared on South China Morning Post