Luo Chuan was at home, taking a break from another grueling day of transporting meals and groceries for Chinese food delivery giant Meituan in the southern tech hub of Shenzhen, when he heard the news: a citywide lockdown was coming, part of the government’s zero-Covid policy. He grabbed his jacket, helmet, and mobile phone battery, and dashed out the door on his scooter.

Luo spent the next two weeks sleeping in a roadside underpass. If he returned to his dormitory, he’d be stuck there, with his entire neighborhood sealed off and guards at the entrances. It’d prevent Luo from bringing food to residents in Shenzhen’s high-tech district — a gig that pays about $55 a day. He couldn’t afford to lose the work.

Inside the underpass, where seven drivers waited out the lockdown, Luo shared a blanket with a colleague. Every morning, they were woken at six by the traffic. They bought essentials from a nearby supermarket and brushed their teeth in a public toilet. On the fourth day, a hostel let them shower for free. “I was so energized,” Luo told Rest of World. “It was the first time I felt so amazing taking a shower.”

As Shanghai, China’s most populous city, embarks on a nine-day lockdown that will restrict the movement of 26 million people in two stages, more gig laborers and factory workers will face the kinds of stark choices that Luo and others have confronted in Shenzhen. 

The harsh restrictions imposed on major cities as part of the government’s zero-Covid policy do not affect all workers equally. While white-collar employees at big tech companies have largely been able to work from home during the lockdowns, blue-collar workers, whose income is tied to their jobs in the streets and on production lines, have faced difficult decisions. After more than two years of China’s zero-Covid policy, platform workers, factory employees, and labor experts told Rest of World that workers are starting to feel fatigue — and the lockdowns only add unpredictability to already precarious work. 

Factory employees, warehouse workers, and temporary shift workers like security guards or neighborhood goods sorters have all been buffeted by the waves of restrictions since 2020. “The whole chain of production is facing pressure from the lockdown policies,” said Aidan Chau, a researcher at China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong. 

Shenzhen’s lockdown is now lifting, but the story is repeating in other cities as new Covid-19 clusters emerge. While the zero-Covid strategy still enjoys strong public support in China, the economic toll is causing more people to question whether it’s worth locking down hundreds of thousands of people over a few cases, many of which are asymptomatic, according to the government. On March 28, more than 65% of nationwide Covid-19 cases were recorded in Shanghai: 4,381 asymptomatic and 96 symptomatic cases, according to official statistics.

During Shenzhen’s lockdown earlier this month, public transport was halted, and office buildings, factories, and hardware markets were closed. Li Ping runs an iPhone repair shop in Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei, the world’s largest electronics wholesale market. When the market was temporarily shut for two weeks due to Covid-19, Li was unable to move some 100 yet-to-be-refurbished iPhones out of his studios to work on, while he still had to pay about $2,400 in rent and utilities. His nine employees, who are paid by the number of devices fixed, also received no wages for about two weeks. 

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Factories in Shenzhen play an essential role in global tech supply chains, producing iPhones as well as essential components like touch displays and circuit boards. Manufacturers tried to blunt the impact of the lockdown by shifting production to other regions. Those that couldn’t insulated workers from outside infections by sealing them in factory bubbles. On short-video platforms like Douyin and Kuaishou, workers posted videos of themselves waiting in long queues to get tested. A worker at electric vehicle maker BYD Auto described colleagues spending several nights sleeping on the factory floor. They were happy to do so, the worker told Rest of World, in order to keep working and getting paid. 

A 28-year-old worker, who refused to give his name, told Rest of World that he arrived in Shenzhen in February to work at electronic factories, but during the lockdown, no jobs were available. “When I saw the news [of the lockdown], I felt I was struck by thunder,” he said, adding he was temporarily staying with a friend. “This is a nightmare for people who are looking for work. I have no job, no money for food, and no place to live.”

The drivers who do manage to keep working — despite the sacrifices — are actually helping the government feed the population and reduce the negative impact of the zero-Covid policy, said Hui Huang, a PhD candidate at King’s College, London, who studies the lives of delivery workers. “In Shanghai, the government needs food delivery drivers to work in order to maintain the normal function of society and reduce the social impact of the lockdown,” Huang, who was himself a delivery driver in the city for six months as part of his research, told Rest of World. Over the past week, Shanghai residents have complained about not being able to hire delivery drivers because of the surging demand. 

This important job, however, is reinforcing the social and economic divides between delivery drivers — who are overwhelmingly male migrant workers from rural areas — and the urban populations they serve, according to Huang. “The pandemic intensified discrimination against drivers,” said Huang. “It’s the nature of food delivery work — drivers need to contact a lot of people, and everyone is afraid of contracting the virus — so drivers are being regarded as virus carriers.”

As long as China’s zero-Covid strategy persists, gig workers like Luo will be helping people across the country survive periodic isolation and mass testing. After photos of delivery workers sleeping on the pavement and public squares in Shenzhen went viral on social media, the two dominant food delivery platforms, Meituan and Ele.me, said they had arranged for hotels to offer free accommodations. But Luo did not get a bed. On the eleventh night on the street, he bought a camping tent to keep himself warm in the underpass. “I think it’s still more comfortable sleeping on a bed,” he said.