china pressures meituan, didi to protect ‘labour interests’ as covid-19 controls make life difficult for gig workers

Chinese authorities have urged the country’s gig economy platforms, including delivery giants Meituan and Ele.me, as well as ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing, to “protect labour interests” at a time when the country’s dynamic zero Covid-19 policy is making life difficult for casual workers.

China’s labour ministry, along with the country’s cyberspace administration, the transport ministry, the market regulator and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, summoned 11 platforms before last week’s Mid-Autumn Festival holiday to give them “administrative guidance” on protecting rights of gig economy workers who are usually hired on flexible contracts, according to a statement from the labour ministry on Tuesday.

The statement provided few details, but the warning came at a time when China’s gig economy workers are bearing the brunt of the country’s draconian Covid-19 controls, from snap lockdowns to regular testing. On China’s highly censored social media there have been many videos posted showing struggling workers who are unable to work due to lockdowns and other health controls.

In a video clip widely shared during the partial lockdown of the southern city of Shenzhen earlier this month, a shirtless man is seen trying to squeeze his head through the bars of a closed gate, crying out, “I can’t stop earning money. I have to get out to earn money. I have to support my mom, and I have to support my daughter. I can’t be locked down here, I can’t afford being locked here!”

China officially has 200 million workers on flexible employment, with many earning a living doing odd jobs. However, as China’s economic growth quickly loses steam, rising unemployment is fermenting social tensions.

The unemployment rate for Chinese youth aged between 16 and 24 rose from 15.3 per cent in January to 19.9 per cent in July, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. That is the highest rate since Beijing started publishing the youth unemployment index in January 2018, and higher than that of the US and many European countries.

china pressures meituan, didi to protect ‘labour interests’ as covid-19 controls make life difficult for gig workers

Delivery workers for Meituan wait for orders in Beijing, China, June 3, 2022. Photo: Bloomberg

China has been introducing new measures to help tech firms create employment and stabilise the economy ahead of the 20th Party Congress next month, where a new generation of Communist Party leaders will be announced.

The State Council, China’s cabinet, last week ordered financial institutions to extend special loans to key internet platform companies, and promised subsidies for workers struggling in the gig economy and for college students yet to find work two years after graduation.

Labour rights for China’s gig workers have become a social issue in recent years as they do not have the same protection as full-time workers. In response, the Chinese government has been trying to put more pressure on platforms like Meituan and Ele.me to shoulder greater responsibility.

Ele.me is owned by Alibaba Group Holding, parent company of the South China Morning Post.

One driver for the ride hailing platform Tuotuo Exing told the Post that he could not make a living during the two-day lockdown in Shenzhen in early September, when residents in six of the city’s major districts were told to suspend “unnecessary movement and activities”, and residential compounds and public transportation were closed.

Although ride-hailing services were allowed to operate, the driver – surnamed Chen – said he stayed in a hotel the night before the lockdown to avoid being stranded in his community, but there were few people on the street looking for rides anyway.

He gave up after the first day and went home, but his residential compound did not allow him to go out again. “That was a wasted weekend for drivers like me,” Chen said.

The State Administration for Market Regulation and six other government agencies last July issued new guidelines to protect basic labour rights for food delivery riders, including ensuring that they earn more than the minimum wage, are freed from unreasonable demands placed upon them by algorithms that dictate delivery times, and have access to social security and union membership.

Some platforms hire gig workers on flexible hours of their own choosing to avoid the need to pay social welfare contributions.

Several Didi drivers told the Post that they have to maintain a certain working schedule – known as “raising accounts” – to get more bookings. In one case, a Shanghai-based driver said he can make around 10,000 yuan (US$1,443) per month by starting as early as 6am and finishing his shift in the early afternoon.

Keyword: China pressures Meituan, Didi to protect ‘labour interests’ as Covid-19 controls make life difficult for gig workers

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