Earlier this month, dozens of drivers for the Chinese e-commerce giant Meituan took to city streets in Linyi, Shenzhen, and Tongxiang to protest a new policy that reduced how much they were paid per delivery. The demonstrations are part of a growing backlash against e-commerce companies in China over how they treat their workers. Though there were fewer protests in 2020 during the pandemic, strikes in China involving delivery drivers increased nearly fivefold between 2018 and 2019, according to one estimate. In January, a driver set himself on fire in the city of Taizhou to protest unpaid wages.

A new study by Harvard researcher Ya-Wen Lei found that how Chinese firms manage gig workers — operationally, legally, even down to the technology used — can make them more likely to feel that a strike or protest is their only recourse. Lei’s research, published in the American Sociological Review late last month, suggests that the way tech platforms treat their workforces can fuel labor unrest and comes as a number of countries are considering granting gig workers more rights of traditional employees. 

Lei, who is a sociology professor, tracked 68 workers from 2017 to 2019, as they joined China’s booming platform economy. The participants were mostly male migrant laborers who had previously worked on assembly lines for companies like Foxconn. In the factories, they were forced to toil like robots, which sometimes ended up replacing them. The workers told Lei that they spent most of their time in just three locations: their dorms, the factory, and the company cafeteria. All the while, China’s biggest food delivery companies like Meituan and Ele.me were promoting a vision of gig work that has been sold all over the world: you could set your own hours and be your own boss. 

The workers imagined an idyllic vision of gig work, making deliveries on motorbikes while zooming down China’s newly constructed roads. “Freedom meant so much to this group of people,” Lei told Rest of World. But once they took jobs with e-commerce companies, drivers reported being let down. Their world had expanded from the factory campus, but they lacked formal work contracts, had little interaction with human colleagues and bosses, and were forced to deal with shifting rules and requirements. Within a year, some of the workers began to protest their new employers. 

Most of China’s 6 million food delivery workers fall into two categories. Service workers, known as zhuansong 专送, have labor contracts, regular hours, and human managers. Gig workers, meanwhile, are known as zhongbao 众包, and their work is mainly self-directed and mediated by an app — just like Uber or Grab drivers in many countries. According to Lei, each labor class has its own distinct legal and managerial relationship with the delivery platforms, or what she calls their unique “platform architecture.” These distinctions make gig workers far more likely than service workers to funnel dissatisfaction into collective action, like a protest or strike. 

Intuitively, it might seem more likely that service workers — who have tangible connections to the companies they deliver for — would feel more empowered to speak up. But Lei found that this stable connection actually prevented them from protesting. They benefited from regular interactions with their colleagues, and were more likely to think of themselves as part of a team working toward shared goals. Another crucial factor, said Lei, was that the service workers felt they had entered into a fair contract governed by China’s labor laws.

The gig workers, by contrast, have to accept a boilerplate agreement when they download a delivery app, which typically stipulates that the platform can update it at any time. When something changes, there’s no room for negotiation. That’s what motivated the Meituan drivers’ protests earlier this month, when the app suddenly decreased how much workers earned from each order. “By signing the agreement, they accept that the labor laws which apply to the [formal] workers will not be applied to them,” said Aidan Chau, a researcher at the China Labour Bulletin, a watchdog group based in Hong Kong. “These zhongbao are the most exploited — the workers who are having the most trouble.”  

Gig workers aren’t accountable to human supervisors, but, instead, an algorithm that determines where they go and how many deliveries they must make in a day. The apps often don’t take into account human variables, like if a restaurant is backed up, if the streets are clogged with traffic, or if drivers need to spend time navigating a security guard or crowded elevator at their destination. If orders are late or a customer complains, the driver can be penalized, sometimes up to half a day’s wages for just one infraction.

“The company sets the parameters. And the parameters don’t really include the workers’ conditions or how workers feel.”

In addition to delivery drivers, Lei also interviewed several software engineers who helped design algorithms for Chinese food delivery apps. They said they were tasked with reaching benchmarks set by the companies, not addressing concerns from drivers. “The companies have two goals: to optimize revenues and also customers’ experiences,” said Lei. “The company sets the parameters. And the parameters don’t really include the workers’ conditions or how workers feel.” Meituan and Ele.me did not immediately return a request for comment.

China’s food delivery companies have been under fire since September, when the magazine Renwu published a viral investigation that chronicled the impossible quotas and tight timelines that apps set for delivery drivers. The article ignited an uproar on social media in China, prompting people to discuss how the workers that their lifestyles depend on are treated. But the outrage didn’t push platforms to make many meaningful changes. Ele.me, for example, only encouraged customers to wait up to eight additional minutes for deliveries. “There’s a lot of response on the internet saying they are just trying to shift the responsibility to the customers, but not trying to solve the problem themselves,” said Chau.

Lei said the Chinese government isn’t likely to improve things for delivery workers any time soon. That may in part be because the country’s economy relies on gig platforms to help absorb surplus labor. In February, a delivery driver and activist posted a video denouncing Ele.me’s latest delivery targets. He was later detained for undisclosed reasons, and it’s not clear if he has been released. 

Ultimately, the workers Lei followed from the factory floor to the platform economy didn’t find the freedom they were seeking. “They had the same feeling of alienation, of being seen as an instrument, instead of as human beings,” she said.