Faculty Spotlight: Labor Contention in China’s Changing Economy

July 31, 2019
Ya-Wen Lei

Although traditionally known as “the world’s factory,” China’s economy has changed immensely in recent years. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the number of jobs in the manufacturing sector has been declining since 2012, whereas jobs in the service sector have been increasing. As the country’s economy and primary industries have changed, so too have its labor conflicts. Ya-Wen Lei, Assistant Professor of Sociology, investigates the labor organizing of drivers for China’s fast-growing food-delivery platforms.

The top two food-delivery companies in China reported a combined 5.7 million registered drivers in 2018. Some drivers work regularly for local agents of specific platforms, others operate on more of a “gig” basis, similar to Uber drivers in the US—but a significant proportion (one-third) share a previous history of factory work.

Even more importantly, many drivers report being haunted by memories of their former workplace. Even drivers without this history regularly compare their current employment to the harrowing stories they’ve heard about factory work hours and conditions. There is a widespread sense—at least when drivers first start out—that the platform economy is a land of freedom and opportunity. It certainly helps that drivers also enjoy a higher income than factory workers. But even with this income, a growing number of drivers quickly become disillusioned as they realize they have escaped the stifling conditions of the factory floor, only to face the intractable demands of apps and algorithms that regulate their every move.

Lei has documented a growing number of collective actions organized by food-delivery platform drivers—with 87 cases of strikes and protests between 2016 and 2018. Like drivers for Uber and Deliveroo in the US, UK, and France, Chinese food-delivery drivers complain about decreasing piece rates, the precarious nature of their employment, and diminishing autonomy within the work itself. But the disciplinary measures imposed by Chinese food-delivery platforms are much more intense than those imposed by platform companies in the US or Europe: the amount of a fine can be half of a driver’s daily earning. 

Platform delivery drivers who were previously factory workers play a crucial role in organizing protests and strikes. Some of the driver groups even call themselves “labor unions” even though they do not qualify as such according to Chinese law. Pointing to unfair contracts and exploitative algorithms, drivers criticize the monopolistic market enjoyed by the platform delivery companies—or “platform capitalists,” as they call them—and fault the government for failing to regulate them.