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 Ele.me, 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 Ele.me. 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 Ele.me 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.
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