While rules remain murky, China’s gig workers are encouraged to join unions

The drive towards unionising the platform economy in China appears to be gathering momentum, at both national and local level.

The country’s state union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) has been calling for better protection of labour rights for workers in China’s gig economy. And one of the ACFTU’s local branches, the Beijing Municipal Federation of Trade Unions (BMFTU) has introduced guidelines for delivery drivers and other platform workers operating in China’s capital.

These outline ten measures, which include stationing union cadres in the local community to gather and resolve problems faced by workers, recruiting gig economy workers to join the union, using existing worker centres to contact workers, providing health checks and childcare services, and providing workers with skills training.

The BMFTU’s guidelines also state that the union will negotiate with companies on important issues such as pay, workplace policies, working hours, and other workers’ protections. In the meantime, the union will arrange lawyers to provide legal advice and services for gig workers.

Similar measures have been introduced in Shanghai, where workers now have their own trade union, and the city of Xiamen, which has asked firms to give delivery workers a “20-minute break for every four hours of work”, according to the state-run People’s Daily.


Developments at local level


Moves towards unionisation are happening on a local level too. For example, in Quanzhou, the Taiwanese Investment Zone Federation of Trade Unions held a group initiation ceremony for more than 200 new members, including truck drivers, couriers, online meal delivery personnel, security guards and others.

The union has set up a voluntary service site to provide free legal consultations and Taiwanese medical staff from Yihe Hospital formed a volunteer service team for free clinics to measure blood pressure and provide free health consultations for workers.

One courier, Tan Xiaoxiong, was quoted as saying: “Joining the trade union has given us organisation and support, and more truly feel that the ‘mother family’ is around. When you’re tired, you can go to the outdoor labour service station to rest and drink. The union’s service is so considerate.”

The union will continue to promote and develop membership to boost participation.

And, this autumn, the Shushan district of Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province, East China, established its first trade union for gig economy workers.


Happiness stations


The New Employment Form Union of Shushan Economic and Technological Development Zone already has more than 5,000 members, including couriers, truck drivers and ride share drivers.

“After the establishment of the joint trade union, they will be able to enjoy the mutual assistance protection plan in the event of accidental injuries,” said the head of the new union. He said the union would also be establishing “happiness stations” in each of the district’s five communities to provide services such as charging points, drinking water, and reading.

Meanwhile, in the Chongxian sub-district of Hangzhou, the Chongxian Sub-district Federation of Trade Unions met in October to investigate working conditions for people employed in logistics and freight drivers, online car-hailing drivers, courier brothers, takeaway delivery personnel, security guards etc in the jurisdiction. The union also discussed plans to recruit new members and to improve services for existing members.

While all this activity is taking place, authorities have directed the cyberspace watchdog to investigate the use of algorithms by tech platforms, amidst claims that algorithms are issuing overly harsh fines and pushing couriers so hard that they are effectively encouraging dangerous driving.


Change – but to what effect?


The State Administration for Market Regulation has opened a public consultation on the guidelines classifying platforms based on their purpose, size, market valuation and the ability to restrict contacts between consumers, merchants and service providers. The authority is also seeking feedback about the implementation of platforms’ responsibilities in relation to fair competition.

Should this be adopted, super-large platforms such as Meituan will have to introduce a ranking system for those operating through platforms, treat them equally and refrain from monopoly agreements, establish and improve data security and risk assessment, improve compliance, undergo external audits, and ensure users are registered under their real name, and so on.

It’s clear, then, that the regulatory climate for platforms in China is changing but the extent and depth of the reforms and their ultimate impact on the workers is yet to be seen.

Some of the changes already implemented have attracted criticism for being ineffective. For example, the Chinese government’s ban on compulsory overtime has reportedly resulted in hours and pay being cut – but not the workload. Meanwhile, protests, strikes and accidents continue.

Lorraine Mullaney PlatformsIntelligence staff

Photo: Gaston Laborde

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