China moves to protect food delivery drivers from digital exploitation

Josh Ye, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jul 27 2021 02:41 PM

Chinese regulators have ordered online platforms to ensure food delivery riders earn above the country’s minimum wage, that riders be freed from unreasonable demands placed upon them by algorithms, and that these workers have access to social security and a place in a union, in a likely financial blow to big delivery services companies such as Meituan.

The guidelines, published on Monday afternoon by the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) along with six other government agencies in Beijing, are designed to protect basic labour rights for riders, including a base income, work safety, food safety, a decent working environment and access to insurance coverage.

The policy guidelines come as China ramps up a campaign to rein in Big Tech, forcing the sector to put greater emphasis on consumer and worker rights. The tighter regulatory scrutiny has seen Chinese tech stocks plunge in Hong Kong in recent sessions with Meituan, which employs about 3 million riders delivering an average of more than 27 million food orders a day in 2020, falling 14 per cent on Monday.


The guidelines also come in the wake of complaints by riders that they lack proper labour safeguards and could signal more regulation when it comes to gig economy employment rights. SAMR made its announcement just days after the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MOHRSS), along with seven other government agencies, published separate guidelines on guaranteeing the basic rights of workers in “new employment forms”. This goes beyond food deliverymen to include drivers on ride hailing platforms and other delivery riders.

“The two sets of guidelines make the legal relationship between the online platforms and gig workers clearer, which used to be very controversial as platforms like Meituan and Ele.me outsourced their delivery services to third-party companies,” said Liu Jia, a lawyer at Yingke Law Firm’s Hangzhou office. “This will definitely increase costs for these online platforms.”

According to Monday’s guidelines, platforms must ensure that riders earn above the minimum wage in the area they operate in. They also prohibit platforms from using the most stringent algorithm to benchmark a rider’s performance. Instead, platforms have to use a moderate algorithm that can “appropriately allow more time for riders to finish their deliveries”.

The guidelines also demand that platforms help riders gain access to social security as well as commercial insurance, to cover such things as accidents and sickness. Platforms have also been ordered to build “union organisations” and play an active role in recruiting riders into these unions, so that they can participate in negotiating labour rights.

Regulators also urged the industry to improve the general working conditions of riders, including such things as rest stations for riders, smart meal-retrieval cabinets and smart helmets for riders to boost safety.
Labour issues at big services platforms such as Meituan and Ele.me, owned by Alibaba Group Holding, have come under scrutiny in recent years. In April, a government video showing a local labour official working an arduous 12-hour shift as a Meituan employee went viral on Chinese social media.

The two-minute clip, shared by the Beijing Municipal Human Resources and Social Security Bureau, featured the deputy director of the bureau’s labour relations division spending a day working as a Meituan delivery driver in the Chinese capital.

The director was filmed rushing around Beijing on a motorbike to pick up food orders while struggling with the city’s infamous congested traffic. At one point he was 20 minutes late, resulting in a 60 per cent penalty cut in his delivery fee. He earned a meagre 41 yuan (US$6.3) at the end of his first day.

In 2019, one of Meituan’s deliverymen stabbed a supermarket staffer to death, prompting a debate on social media over the pressures faced by such workers. Meituan then made a statement pledging improvements to its platform.

The company also recently found itself under scrutiny by the SAMR over whether it forced merchants to sell exclusively on its platform. The regulator announced an investigation into Meituan on April 26 after receiving complaints from the public.


Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.
Additional reporting by Jane Zhang

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