Stringent lockdowns in many Chinese cities – under the obsessive and inflexible “zero-Covid” strategy of the Communist Party of China – has resulted in an economic slowdown and citizens suffering, even as China justifies the restrictions with aggressive rhetoric.

Among the worst affected are the country’s labouring masses, with anger and exasperations violently breaking out on factory floors. Once again, the burden has fallen upon delivery workers to be the lifelines of cities to ensure that food and supplies are provided without interruptions.

Parallel to China’s vigorous urbanisation drive has been the rise of the services sector, especially of application-based on-demand services, in logistics, transport, and hospitality.

These services have developed in tune with the needs of an increasingly consumerist middle-class population in cities. While the delivery workers – overwhelmingly male, rural migrants – are part of the daily urban landscape, the pandemic has proactively visibilised and front-lined them.

Beyond valourisation

According to the Chinese Ministry of Human Resource and Social Security, there are about 200 million workers in “flexible” employment. Many of them were earlier factory employees who moved to gig work to escape the monotony of assembly lines and earn higher earnings as well as have some autonomy.

Beyond their selfless services – that have been valourised – lie precarious lives controlled and surveilled by algorithms, and arduous working conditions. Their work is tied to the vagaries of apps and as they grapple with informal employment arrangements, squeezed timelines, occupational hazards, and the taxing daily negotiations in city spaces and authorities that exact a heavy physical, economic, and emotional toll.

In the ongoing lockdowns, these workers have stretched themselves thin to ensure timely deliveries to gated communities and neighbourhoods while negotiating the restrictions on the ground.

At the same time, various curbs have meant they cannot enter their own residential compounds, rendering them homeless with many forced to sleep on pavements and under flyovers. The social and economic divide between delivery workers and the populace they serve, as seen across the world, is also prevalent in China.

A delivery worker, who says he has been living at a bus stop because he has been unable to return home for weeks due to the lockdown, washes his head on a street in Shanghai on May 12. Credit: Reuters

Despite the Chinese party-state’s authoritarian control constricting formal avenues of protest, delivery workers have pushed back through different means to raise discontent and amplify their lived experiences.

The struggles and concerns of these workers have gained visibility in the Chinese media including social media, generating support and sympathy. Its impact was so far-reaching that it led authorities to go undercover to understand the ecosystem.

‘Common Prosperity’ campaign

In some ways, the plight of delivery workers also found resonance in the top-down Common Prosperity campaign propagated by Chinese President Xi Jinping aimed at reducing the wealth gap and a more equitable redistribution.

Through the summer of last year, via a regulatory frenzy, Chinese technology companies, including those providing app-based on-demand services, were brought under heavy scrutiny.

Guidelines were issued to protect and improve the rights of gig workers, including allowing access to social security benefits. Further, since March 1, there is a new algorithm law in place that scrutinises the ways e-commerce platforms allocate orders, pay salaries, and hand out rewards and penalties.

The technology companies have also been encouraged to form workers’ unions. While some companies have set up unions and others have agreed to follow suit, it is doubtful if the workers are fully invested in such top-down approaches as opposed to organic, bottom-up organising, though heavily dumbed down by the party-state.

Unions remain subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party, lacking any real bargaining power for workers.

The overworked, young, white-collar workers in the technology sector see benefits in even superficial, or nominal union representation.

A delivery worker rides near a giant screen of Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Beijing on May 10. Credit: Reuters

However, going by the prevailing precariousness and discontent among blue-collar workers, with the increasing determination of the Chinese party-state to maintain the status quo, it is difficult to imagine any tangible benefits for gig workers at the bottom rung of these “reforms”.

As the new iterations of the pandemic and lockdown have stagnated the economy, there seems to be an increasing consensus within the Chinese Communist Party to rollback or postpone the Common Prosperity campaign, and pause the regulatory drives on the technology companies.

It remains to be seen if some of these apparently pro-worker measures do indeed stay the course. This pessimism stems from the material conditions of labour in contemporary China.

The working class

While the country has transformed economically over the past four decades of economic reforms and the intensification of its pace, there has been a political disenfranchisement of the working class and privileging of the middle class; all this even as the Chinese Communist Party, in its rhetoric, continues to situate itself as the vanguard of the working class.

The traditional social base of the party – the peasantry and industrial proletariat –has been gradually shrinking, and there has been a steady absorption of new classes of entrepreneurs, urban professionals, and university graduates.

Despite being critical engines that powered China’s economic rise, rural migrant workers have largely been excluded from Party membership. Of the 2.1 million new members recruited in 2018, less than 5,700 were migrant workers.

Beyond the valourised and romanticised narratives, it is in this bleak context that China’s delivery workers have been articulating their demands for better working conditions and labour protection.

Anand P Krishnan is Visiting Associate Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies.