The gig economy is once again in the spotlight due to recent tragedies involving workers in China. In particular, the food delivery giant Ele.me, owned by Alibaba Group Holding, has been the focus of public attention since the end of December, after a rider died on the job and another set himself on fire in protest for unpaid back wages in the space of two weeks.
The man who immolated himself is a 48-year-old man from Yunnan who lives in Taizhou, a city in the coastal province of Jiangsu, north of Shanghai, employed as a delivery man in a third-party company that delivers on behalf of the platform. He is currently being treated at a local hospital in stable condition. Under pressure due to the general outrage sparked by the questionable choices made after the death of a rider just a week earlier, Ele.me covered medical care for the protester and stated that the platform strictly prohibits the companies it hires from deducting pay for any reason.
The rider who died while carrying deliveries likewise worked for a third-party food delivery company, Fengniao Zhongbao. He was 43 years old, originally from the northwestern province of Shanxi, but lived in Beijing. As compensation to the family, Ele.me initially offered 2,000 yuan (equivalent to just over €250).
The low figure set social media ablaze: the company was quick to justify itself by responding that it had no legal responsibility for his death, but promised to increase the compensation to 600,000 yuan after “discussions with all parties.” There was no direct working relationship between the deceased rider and Ele.me.
Delivery workers usually enter into contracts with third-party agencies, called “cooperation agreements.” This means they are not eligible for social insurance under Chinese law, which includes coverage for expenses in case of work-related injuries, among other things. A report by the state-run Xinhua news agency in mid-January reported that more than 60 percent of delivery persons surveyed do not have access to social security. One man recounted that when he applied for a job as a delivery person a few weeks ago, he was asked to “voluntarily give up social security.”
The lack of legal protection for workers in the platform economy is one of the unresolved gaps in the flexible work system. At a time when digital-based services have taken over large swaths of China’s economy, and not only, Xinhua reports that these issues could harm economic development. What is certain is that in the event of complaints from delivery drivers, both platforms and third-party food delivery companies are finding legal loopholes to evade their mutual responsibility.
Caught in between are the interests of those who perceive the job of rider as a temporary one, work to be done while waiting for better opportunities, and who are therefore unwilling to risk public protests or mobilizations. But in the virtual space, debates are ongoing in a number of directions, and in mid-January the feminist collective Jianjiao Buluo promoted a campaign to provide 1001 insurance policies against accidents for just as many “996 workers.”
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