Making amends

After TV exposé, Meituan and to improve gig workers’ rights


One of the greatest rulers of imperial China was Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty. The longest reigning monarch, he was said to have made tours around Beijing and across the country. Dressing as a commoner and mingling with ordinary folk, the emperor was able to see how his subjects lived with a view to adjusting his rule accordingly.

Wang Lin, a deputy director at the city of Beijing’s Municipal Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security, appeared to take a page out of the same playbook lately. Tasked with drafting new labour rules for gig economy companies, Wang sought to understand the struggles and needs of the nation’s delivery people and ride-hailing drivers. These hordes are the logistical backbone that underpin the thriving on-demand services market. Yet the stress and working conditions this group of grass-roots workers has to endure has been a growing concern (see WiC511). Now it seems policymakers are prepared to tackle the problem more seriously.

Wang went undercover and his work experience turned out to be an eye-opener. For instance, the numerous frustrations he faced as a delivery man for internet giant Meituan (see WiC498) included food not being ready when he arrived at the restaurant for pick-up, traffic congestion on the roads, an inability to contact customers (resulting in time lost) and navigation devices pointing him in the wrong direction.

After working for 12 hours on his first day, Wang only managed to complete five orders and make Rmb41 in pay, far below the target of Rmb100 he set for himself. The paltry sum was partly a result of his failure to deliver food on time as a rookie. “It’s not easy. I feel unfairly treated. Such money is too difficult to earn,” he told Beijing Satellite TV, which made a programme about his experience.

There were over seven million delivery people working in China as of the end of 2019 (i.e. about 1.5 million more than the population of Scotland). Many of them were attracted by the potential to earn more than Rmb10,000 ($1,544) a month. But to make that salary requires completing 1,670 orders per month, or 59 orders a day, Sohu estimates.

Depending on the distances involved, riders are usually given 30 minutes to an hour to complete their tasks – from fetching the meal to delivering it to the customer’s doorstep. Various penalties apply should they fail to deliver on time, such as being suspended from working for the platform for a day. Negative reviews from customers, which can range from the food getting cold to the riders being deemed impolite, could lead to a lower rating and smaller bonuses in the long term. Worse, Meituan’s system doesn’t take into account the challenge of the ‘last mile’, or the vertical distances of ascending to upper floors. For apartment blocks without elevators, or office buildings during rush hours (when white-collars are queuing up in the lift lobby), that often means dashing up staircases with hot food.

The strict carrot-and-stick system of the delivery apps has forced a lot of riders to break speed limits or forgo rest periods even if that means putting their health at risk. In January Han Wei, a 43 year-old working for Meituan’s major rival, reportedly dropped dead on his motorbike when making his way across central Beijing to complete his 34th order of the day. His family could only make a Rmb30,000 claim on a basic insurance policy. The Alibaba-backed company initially decided to compensate the family with an additional Rmb2,000, emphasising that the consideration was given on humanitarian grounds because Han was not a formal employee of It was only after a huge backlash from the general public that the company increased its payment to Rmb600,000.

Adopting similar labour arrangements, Meituan explained in the same Beijing Satellite TV exposé that the recruitment of riders is generally outsourced to third-party agencies, and as a result it is not obliged to offer standard labour protection to its gig workers. “They don’t have a permanent work environment. And neither do we provide tools to them, so we can’t possibly be fully responsible for their actions at work,” a representative of Meituan told Wang and other government officials, noting that alternative arrangements could add significantly to the company’s costs.

Not surprisingly Wang’s revelations on the show have sparked heated discussion online. “Meituan’s rules are blood-sucking,” commented one netizen. “Wishing to make big bucks from little investment, platforms such as Meituan and are parasites exploiting workers and their painstaking effort,” thundered another weibo user.

Already mired in an antitrust investigation (see WiC538), lossmaking Meituan responded to the criticism by announcing that it will phase out the current practice of meting out penalties to delivery people on a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ basis. It also claimed to have launched an initiative to support delivery folk in areas such as better access to social security (i.e. healthcare).

To keep up with its archrival, Ele.Me has also revised its penalty system. Additionally, it is tweaking the algorithms that assess how much time each task requires by factoring a wider range of situations such as the number of elevators in a building or the impact of roadworks on travel time.

To many WiC readers it will crystallise a paradox of modern China: in a notionally Communist society these legions of workers that deliver food (and other items) each day cope with working conditions not much better than those described by Charles Dickens in his 1854 novel about the sweatshop mills of Lancashire, Hard Times.

As Dickens’ contemporary Victor Hugo might have commented: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.