Home >Politics >Policy >China wants gig workers to have more power—just not too much

HONG KONG : China’s communist state has made a show in recent months of supporting the lowest-level workers in the country’s bare-knuckle tech industry, an emerging plank in leader Xi Jinping’s campaign to shrink the country’s wealth gap and usher in a new era of “common prosperity."

The moves also bolster a sweeping effort by Mr. Xi to exert more control over one of the nation’s few strategic sectors that is dominated by private capital.

Last Friday, China’s human resource ministry summoned 10 of the country’s largest digital platform companies—including internet behemoths Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., ride-hailing provider Didi Global Inc. and food-delivery giant Meituan—pressing them to improve conditions for the tens of millions of contract workers who keep the country’s consumer economy humming.

Officials in the meeting reminded tech executives of instructions Beijing issued in mid-July to improve gig workers’ pay and benefits, and to adjust the algorithms used for managing workers to ease workloads and lessen punishment for late arrivals or deliveries.

Under Mr. Xi, the Chinese state has surprised analysts and unsettled markets by taking aggressive action against some of the country’s biggest tech companies in recent months, accusing them of violating antitrust, data-security and labor rules.

Increasingly, Beijing has portrayed its actions as the prelude to a new stage in China’s development, one in which the tremendous wealth generated in the country’s boom years is more evenly distributed.

At least some companies have appeared responsive. The same day as the meeting, Meituan published its algorithm rules through social media and vowed to soften them, for example by designating a range for on-time deliveries instead of hard deadlines.

Meituan is also considering whether to set up a corporate-level umbrella trade union for its workers in addition to establishing more local trade-union branches across China, according to a person familiar with the matter. E-commerce company Inc. said it formed an umbrella trade union for its workers last month.

Meituan said on Tuesday it had set up a special working group to examine and address its current labor and tech practices. Alibaba and Didi didn’t respond to requests for comment.

China’s drive to confront labor challenges in the tech sector comes as governments around the world grapple with how to regulate the gig economy and allegations of widespread worker exploitation. In May, the Biden administration blocked a Trump-era regulation that would have made it easier for businesses to categorize U.S. gig workers and others as independent contractors. Earlier this year, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled that drivers for Uber Technologies Inc. were entitled to benefits such as paid holiday and pensions.

Contract laborers working for China’s digital platforms numbered 84 million in 2020 and make up a growing proportion of the urban workforce, according to a think tank affiliated with the country’s central planning agency. Most are paid per delivery, work long hours with few benefits and are often docked pay for not meeting strict performance goals. Last winter, one Chinese gig worker died while on the job, and another attempted to suicide by self-immolation in protest of what he said were unpaid fees.

Last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang triggered a nationwide debate about social equality when he revealed that 600 million Chinese people earned a monthly income of 1000 yuan ($140) and that many of them suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 lockdown.

The renewed focus on labor issues by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which is nominally Marxist, is likely to benefit workers to some degree, according to labor activists and scholars, though some say that the campaign appears driven more by efforts to consolidate top-down control than by workers’ concerns.

Much of the party’s effort has focused on setting up trade unions. Tech companies helped form scattered local branches but otherwise dragged their feet in response to Mr. Xi’s 2015 call to expand the reach of trade unions, according to a government official who works on labor issues.

The companies “are now proactively cooperating," including by establishing umbrella unions that cover most staff, said the official, citing pressure from Beijing’s continuing regulatory campaign targeting the industry.

Chinese trade unions, unlike their U.S. counterparts, aren’t self-organized and don’t engage in collective bargaining. Instead, they all operate under a party-controlled body known as the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and focus on mediating labor conflicts.

Meituan, for example, offered to facilitate trade unions as part of a broad package of behavioral remedies related to regulatory breaches that would offer new avenues for government officials to exert influence on the company, according to the person familiar with Meituan’s plan.

Aidan Chau, a researcher at the Hong Kong-based nongovernmental organization China Labour Bulletin, said Beijing’s focus on regulating algorithms and its push for redistribution are theoretical wins for Chinese workers. But it wasn’t clear how the tech companies planned to implement some of the government’s guidelines. And as independent contractors, many gig workers fall outside the new trade unions’ legal remit, Mr. Chau said.

China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security referred a request for comment to the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, which didn’t respond.

“China is trying to tackle questions of redistribution without addressing the issue of representation," said Eli Friedman, a sociology professor at Cornell University who researches state-labor relations in China. “The one thing the Chinese state is unwilling to consider: granting rights to workers to actually organize themselves."

Messrs. Chau and Friedman both pointed to continuing government suppression of independent, grass-roots labor activists and researchers.

In late August, Fang Ran, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Hong Kong, was arrested by security officers in Nanning, the provincial capital of southern Guangxi province, and charged with subversion of state power, according to a social-media post by his father that his close friends verified as genuine.

The friends said they suspected authorities targeted Mr. Fang because of his interest in worker organizing. Mr. Fang had strong Marxist convictions and has advocated for coal miners suffering from black-lung disease since his teen years, but his recent work was mostly scholarly in nature, they said.

Nanning police referred a request for comment to the municipal government, which didn’t immediately respond.

In February, Beijing’s police detained food-delivery worker and labor activist Chen Guojiang under the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble," according to information posted to a channel on the chat app Telegram that was associated with Mr. Chen.

Mr. Chen was known as the leader of “the delivery riders’ alliance," a network of more than a dozen WeChat accounts that reached about 14,000 drivers, said China Labour Bulletin. He was known to call out online platforms for violating rules and to occasionally suggest fellow drivers protest unfair labor practices.

The mainland-China-based social media accounts have been deleted since Mr. Chen’s arrest.

“Chen Guojiang was trying to push for better working conditions outside direct state control. Now things are improving, but he is behind bars," said Mr. Chau, the labor researcher.

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