China’s ‘Zero COVID’ Measures Are Taking a Toll on Gig Workers

China’s ‘Zero COVID’ Measures Are Taking a Toll on Gig Workers
A delivery driver wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus waits at an intersection in Beijing, Nov. 26, 2020 (AP photo by Mark Schiefelbein).
For millions of Chinese citizens, delivery drivers have been key to surviving Beijing’s “zero COVID” coronavirus strategy. Amid rolling lockdowns and travel restrictions, e-commerce couriers have served as lifelines to communities under confinement, from massive cities like Shanghai and Chengdu to smaller provinces like Shenyang, all of which have implemented the strict isolation measures mandated under Beijing’s strict pandemic response. Under these conditions, in which leaving one’s residence for reasons unrelated to getting tested is impossible, access to food and other daily essentials has been scarce. Enter the gig worker. Delivery drivers, by and large, work under contract with courier corporations such as—a play on “Are you hungry?” in Pinyin—or through retailers like Alibaba’s Hema supermarket chain. They are paid according to the volume of orders they successfully deliver, which already meant long, grueling hours even before the onset of the restrictive coronavirus measures. According to findings from a 2018 survey by the Australian research firm Beebird Logistics, only about 30 percent of Chinese delivery drivers reported that they felt their work was adequately valued. Many workers, who primarily hail from rural provinces, are not afforded the same rights and access to government services as their counterparts from urban areas, due to Chinese policies on residency and internal migration. Gig work by its nature is demanding, and those who do it are overworked, underpaid and non-unionized by design. This is not a labor structure unique to China, and since the onset of the coronavirus, labor crises have been commonplace all over the world, from hospitality sectors in the U.S. to the London Underground. However, given the role couriers played in ensuring access to food, medicine and everything else necessary to sustain urban life in China during the pandemic, their low wages and lack of government support are particularly egregious.

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These discrepancies are particularly stark in Shanghai, which lifted its mass lockdown in May but continues to implement snap lockdowns and mass testing. Relieved residents in areas that lifted blockades took the time to reflect on the difficulties they faced while being unable to leave their homes, except for mandatory PCR testing. While gig workers in Shanghai were not housebound, they often had no homes to be confined to. Barred from lodging in hotels and dorms due to coronavirus restrictions, gig workers set up tents and sleeping bags on the streets of the city to rest between their shifts. Mutual aid efforts provided drivers with bedding and takeout meals, but endless weeks of sleeping on the streets was the norm for the duration of the shutdowns. Manufacturing labor fared better, but not by much. Factory workers operated on work schedules akin to the “closed loop” created during the Beijing 2022 Olympics, whereby movement was limited to specific areas in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Though their living conditions were considerably better than delivery drivers who lacked indoor lodging, factory workers are still consistently not given any guidance on dorm access or updates on the closed-loop work cycle. Their discontent, which manifested in a few wildcat demonstrations against management over pay and coronavirus policy, has roots in the exploitative histories of management in factory towns operated by Chinese manufacturers, as well as the Taiwanese and Western electronics manufacturers that fund the facilities. Despite growing domestic and international criticism of their draconian coronavirus policies, Chinese officials have not demonstrated any willingness to change course, nor have governments at the subnational level changed tack in how they treat essential workers. To rebut U.S. criticism in particular, Beijing regularly points to the high death toll in the United States, which surpassed 1 million people this year and continues to rise. Indeed, the U.S. government’s neglectful response to the coronavirus has allowed it to run rampant, in a sort of “COVID infinity” policy that serves as a foil to Beijing’s “zero COVID.” Washington’s failures, however, do nothing to mitigate the distinct harms that China’s approach inflicts upon the domestic labor force, particularly in its prioritization of hygiene theater over public health. Nor does it explain the failure to provide housing, food and resources for couriers who play such a vital role in maintaining the wider public’s access to these resources during periods of confinement. Though these drivers are lauded as “essential” workers, they are scarcely afforded the policy priority and compensation that they deserve. In the words of one exhausted driver about the regulations imposed by the authorities, “What can we possibly do? Those are other people’s regulations.” While the admission may seem like a simple acknowledgment of fatigue, it underlines the loss of autonomy that many laborers feel in relation to management and Chinese authorities. Their objection is not so much to policy decisions that they themselves have little control over, but rules made by people who don’t understand the consequences they have. Connecting the rage of Chinese workers and their U.S. counterparts over working conditions during the pandemic is the sheer number of deaths that could easily have been avoided had workers’ health been put above the profit motive. People like Chen Guojiang, , a driver who was detained for attempting to organize his colleagues last year, and other gig workers may sympathize with the family of Leilani Jordan, a 27-year-old disabled woman who died of COVID-19 [ in 2020 after working maskless and gloveless shifts for a grocery store in Maryland. “They were forcing her to actually work without taking care of her and protecting her,” stated the lawyer representing Jordan’s mother in a lawsuit against the assisted living home where she lived, which ran the work program. “You can’t put profits over people.” But in China, as in the U.S., that remains the status quo.

Worth Reading This Week

Chuang Magazine’s blog posts on the Shanghai lockdown convey the quarantine policies of Shanghai and other provinces and cities from a labor perspective. The posts include video footage, Chinese social media posts and other real-time methods people used to document working through a “zero COVID” lockdown.

****** At Buzzfeed, Emily Baker-White ran an investigation of over 80 leaked audio recordings of internal meetings at the video-sharing social media platform TikTok, detailing Chinese engineers’ access level to and requests for American users’ data. Opacity over the company’s access to data persists, despite scrutiny into the practices of Bytedance, TikTok’s parent company, in the domestic Chinese market. Bytedance has consistently emphasized that Tiktok and its video recommendation algorithms are managed independently. Following the release of the Buzzfeed report, Kevin Xu examined the different aspects of Tiktok’s multifaceted credibility problem at the blog Interconnected, including the firm’s geopolitics and its relationship with Oracle, as well as the possible implications for the global technology sector.

Rui Zhong is the writer of World Politics Review’s China Note. She works as a program associate at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., where she conducts programming and research on U.S.-China diplomatic and cultural relations. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, WIRED magazine, the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage and the MIT Technology Review. She can be found on Twitter at @rzhongnotes.

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