China’s Gig Workers Are Challenging Their Algorithmic Bosses. “Even minor disruption in the form of these very small-scale collective actions can bring the station-level managers to the bargaining table,” says Eli Friedman, an assistant professor of international and comparative labor at Cornell University.
Although China bans independent unions and labor strikes, that hasn’t stopped gig workers from organizing unofficially. Many food delivery riders find opportunities to band together thanks to other types of algorithms—those that help them find like-minded people on Douyin, where gig workers share experiences and advice.
“We do support each other,” says another gig worker at China’s second-largest catering platform, Ele. me, who requested anonymity. “It definitely helps some, but not that much.”
The most famous informal union is the Knights League, which was set up in 2018 for riders to share tips with each other. The most famous gig activist, Chen Guojiang, also known as Mengzhu, reportedly managed 16 WeChat groups reaching over 14,000 delivery drivers. Chen was arrested by Chinese authorities in March of last year on charges of “provoking trouble,” after he tried to mobilize strikes among fellow delivery couriers in Beijing. It is unclear who is running the protests since his arrest and subsequent release.
He would tell gig workers “how to support each other because everyone is weak, but if they can form a link, some kind of solidarity, then maybe they can ask more from the platforms,” says Yu.
Time constraints are among the common complaints among couriers. Between 2011 and 2020, China’s online food delivery industry ballooned from $3.4 billion to $105 billion. But as the industry expanded, more couriers joined, driving down prices, while platforms kept lowering delivery times.
At the same time, reports of couriers involved in traffic accidents as they raced to make deliveries became more common. One report from Shanghai’s traffic police showed that in the first six months of 2017, a courier was involved in a deadly traffic accident roughly every 2.5 days.
These algorithmic changes have even involved making couriers compete against each other as if they were in a game. Couriers on Meituan and Ele. I am ranked by performance, similar to the rankings in China’s most popular mobile game, Honor of Kings. Riders are awarded titles such as Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Kings, which impact their status and income. Companies often organize competitions to encourage couriers to take more orders—inspiring some riders to game the algorithms right back, by faking orders to improve their standing.
But perhaps the most damaging trick a platform can pull is deleting a rider from the system entirely. An investigation by Beijing Zhicheng Migrant Workers Legal Aid and Research Center in January found cases in which couriers’ data would inexplicably vanish after an accident involving a rider. Gig workers need to use order data on the app to prove that they were injured at work, but if they cannot access the app they are unable to provide any evidence to back up their claims.
Public scrutiny over gig-work conditions was heightened after a slew of viral incidents, some of them deadly. In 2019 a driver carrying meals for Meituan, the country’s biggest food delivery platform, stabbed a clerk during a dispute, sparking debate on couriers’ time constraints.