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12 Mar 2022

Daniel Alan Bey, The Diplomat (USA)

China: Labour scandals reflect plight of rural migrants working as food delivery drivers

"Will ‘Common Prosperity’ Reach China’s Takeout Drivers?" 12 March 2022

Food platform delivery drivers have emerged as a symbol of exploitation since the beginning of the pandemic, and China is no exception. But in the world’s most populous nation, they face a set of very specific hurdles due to their identity as rural migrants.

In September 2020, the popular magazine Renwu, or People, published a long-form work of investigative journalism that blew up the Chinese internet. By giving voice to couriers struggling in the face of an algorithmic regime that prioritizes speed and efficiency above all else, “Delivery Workers, Trapped in the System” sparked wide online condemnation of the industry’s labor practices. [...]

The growing awareness of the struggles delivery drivers face comes amid broader resentment in China about how tech firms exploit their employees. Since 2019, there has been growing popular backlash against “996,” the name given to a culture that sees staff work extremely long hours: from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. When the billionaire Jack Ma told young people in 2019 that working 12-hour shifts, with only one day off a week, is a “huge blessing,” he was widely mocked and derided on Chinese social media.

In October 2021, “Worker Lives Matter,” an online campaign challenging the grueling 996 work culture, was born. It began as a spreadsheet started by a few young graduates that allows employees to publicly upload the name of their company, the hours and days they work, and their salary. Later changing its name due to political sensitivities, the project went viral, bringing attention to the realities young white collar workers face and how their experiences differ from the tech sector’s public promises of reform. [...]

Not long after the investigation by Renwu was published, President Xi called on food delivery drivers to have their rights protected. Only months before, in May 2020, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang had publicly decried how 600 million Chinese are still forced to subside on 1,000 RMB ($157) a month. [...]