Takeout couriers in China quietly strike ‘under radar’

Small-scale. Short-lived. All digital. Out of public view.

That’s how a new form of collective worker resistance is unfolding in a fast-growing segment of China’s gig economy – app-based food delivery – despite setbacks to the broader labor movement resulting from a changing and slowing economy and stepped-up repression, new Cornell research finds.

Though highly fragmented and not always successful, “ministrikes” by small groups of food couriers – conducted not with pickets and bullhorns, but quietly via WeChat – reflect a new form of leverage enabled by platform business models, suggest Chuxuan “Victoria” Liu ’21 and Eli Friedman, associate professor and chair of the Department of International and Comparative Labor in the ILR School.

“Food couriers are able to maintain complete physical invisibility, and each individual worker can ‘strike’ from anywhere,” they write in “Resistance Under the Radar: Organization of Work and Collective Action in China’s Food Delivery Industry,” published in the July issue of The China Journal.

The scholars interviewed more than 60 couriers, in person and online, who delivered food for Ele.me, an Alibaba-owned company that controlled nearly half the nation’s food-delivery market. Through those workers, she gained access to local and national WeChat groups where food deliverers share information.

Platform-based delivery work has grown exponentially over the past decade as China’s economy has undergone a massive reorganization away from manufacturing and toward technology, services and logistics. In 2020, Ele.me and Meituan, a slightly larger competitor, together had more than 8 million registered food-delivery couriers, the result of rapid growth achieved in part through exploitative working conditions, according to the researchers.

Amid increasing government crackdowns and online surveillance constraining expressions of labor unrest in recent years, Friedman said, scholars have wondered whether high levels of worker dissatisfaction seen in manufacturing would appear in this new sector.

Their research determined that it has – if you know where to look.

In addition to crowdsourced freelance couriers who work individually, Ele.me relies on a network of subcontractors that operate “stations” within city districts to provide restaurants with more reliable delivery services.

Like the workers themselves, the app rewards or punishes stations financially based on metrics including numbers of deliveries, worker attendance, on-time performance and customer ratings. That pressure on stations creates bargaining power for couriers who may choose to stay offline during peak lunch and dinner times, making themselves unavailable for deliveries, the researchers found.

“Simply by refusing to log into the system,” they wrote, “a handful of couriers can cause considerable damage to the station’s statistics.”

A ministrike at a Shanghai station illustrates an attempt at such resistance. Just before noon, a food deliverer upset about being fined encouraged colleagues to strike, and eight stayed offline. The courier created a WeChat group where the workers aired complaints and negotiated with several managers, an action that concluded before lunch was over.

Though it won only minor concessions, the event showed how quickly workers can organize small strikes through WeChat, the scholars wrote, engaging in a new type of collective action that appears to be widespread and is capable of bigger victories, like pay raises. Crowdsourced couriers not employed by stations may also engage in ministrikes, the research found, but coordination is more difficult because they are so widely dispersed.

Significantly, the government is either unable to monitor such small-scale labor resistance or tolerates it, since it causes minimal social disruption and appears apolitical, targeted primarily at platform subcontractors.

“We’ve seen in the last few years that any kind of collective, coordinated action in China – for all kinds of activists – is really dangerous,” Friedman said. “This refines our understanding of the way public protest can work in light of that new, highly repressive environment, and the role digital media can play in fomenting that kind of action, even on a small scale.”

Food couriers resemble industrial workers in their grievances and their generally defensive posture due to limited contractual and legal protections, according to the researchers. But their strikes, initiated by logging out of an app, are distinctive for their very small numbers, short duration and concealed nature, the authors wrote, revealing “one of the ways that labor unrest has evolved alongside shifting political, economic and technological conditions.”

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