Renwu, a popular magazine, produced a long-form piece of investigative journalism in September 2020 that blew up the Chinese internet. “Delivery Workers, Trapped in the System” triggered widespread online outrage of the industry’s labour standards by giving voice to delivery partners or take-out drivers working in the face of an algorithmic regime that favours speed and efficiency over all else.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, food platform delivery drivers have been a symbol of exploitation, and China is no different. However, because of their status as rural migrants, they confront unique challenges in the world’s most populated country.
The focus of the research was on Meituan and Ele me, the two monopolies that dominate China’s burgeoning food delivery industry. Both companies use “real-time intelligent delivery” systems that utilise cutting-edge AI to shorten its time to deliver products drastically.
In 2016, Wang Xing, the company’s creator, stated, “Our tagline is ‘Meituan provides everything fast.” “The average arrival time is 28 minutes, which is fantastic.” The study, however, revealed a world in which anxiety, dread, loss of income, the threat of harm, and even death are all normalised for delivery drivers. Both Meituan and Ele me offered public apologies after the study, vowing to improve labour conditions by lowering fines, extending delivery times, and enhancing worker safety. Ele.me, on the other hand, was embroiled in new controversy in February 2021, when Weibo users claiming to be delivery drivers accused the firm of dishonest and exploitative methods.
The increased awareness of delivery drivers’ problems coincides with a greater dissatisfaction in China over how internet companies abuse their workers. Since 2019, there has been a rising reaction against the “996” culture, which sees employees working extraordinarily long hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
“Worker Lives Matter,” an internet campaign against the brutal 996 work culture, was launched in October 2021. It started as a spreadsheet created by a few young graduates that allowed employees to enter their employer name openly, hours and days worked, and compensation.
However, barely two months after the publication of Worker Lives Matter, a 22-year-old female employee of e-commerce giant Pinduoduo fell and died on her way home from work in the early hours of December 29, 2021. Local officials became aware of the situation and initiated an inquiry into alleged labour violations.
“Involution” and “laying flat” are terms used to indicate dissatisfaction with the professional and social constraints that young people experience. Chinese President Xi Jinping has officially acknowledged them as severe societal issues. Big tech’s dominant position has sparked explicit anti-capitalist discourse on the internet and nostalgia for the Maoist past.
While there are apparent parallels between the exploitation of young white-collar workers and food delivery drivers, there are also significant variations.
Despite having a combined market share of 94.6 per cent, Meituan and Ele me’s aggressive business approaches aren’t exactly sustainable. Due to severe rivalry, capturing market share and consolidating their monopoly status has been a higher priority than producing money up until recently. Profit margins are under strain due to the labour-intensive nature of the business and constant “pricing wars.” research by Jenny Chan indicates salaries have, in some cases, been slashed by half in recent years.
Such high levels of exploitation would not be conceivable if the delivery drivers’ identification and structural place in Chinese society were not known. According to an official Ele.me study from 2020, the average age of its couriers is roughly 31 years old, with the majority hailing from rural areas.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission identified the hukou system as a “major pillar” underpinning “sustained and systemic discrimination” against rural migrants, who are denied the same access to health care, education, housing, social security, and work as their urban counterparts. Meituan and Ele Me profited from this precarity, taking advantage of a labour pool that lacks the same rights as city dwellers.
President Xi urged to protect food delivery drivers’ rights shortly after Renwu’s investigation was released. Only a few months prior, in May 2020, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang openly lamented that 600 million Chinese are still compelled to live on less than 1,000 RMB ($157) a month.
A Beijing branch of China’s official state-backed All-China Federation of Trade Unions issued rules to protect and unionise delivery drivers in August 2021. New guidelines have been released by regulators that claim to enhance salaries, improve the safety of gig workers, and ensure improved social security. Chinese regulators have ordered online platforms to provide food delivery riders earn more than the country’s minimum wage, are not subjected to unreasonable algorithmic demands, and have access to social security and union representation, a move that is likely to have a financial impact on Meituan and other large on-demand service providers in the country. The recommendations are being released as China intensifies its drive to rein in Big Tech, compelling the industry to place a higher premium on consumer and worker rights. The reforms did not appear anywhere but due to a surge in a grassroots movement driven by delivery drivers, which coincided with rising public awareness following the Renwu inquiry.