China wants concert workers to have more power, but not too much

The moves also bolster Xi’s massive efforts to exert more control over one of the country’s few strategic sectors dominated by private capital.

China’s human resources ministry last Friday summoned 10 of the country’s largest digital platform companies, including internet giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., ride-sharing service provider Didi Global Inc. on terms for the tens of millions of contract workers who drive the nation’s consumer economy.

Meeting officials reminded technical executives of instructions Beijing issued in mid-July to improve wages and benefits for concert workers, and to adjust algorithms used to manage workers to lighten workloads. and reduce penalties for late arrivals or deliveries.

Under Xi, the Chinese state has surprised analysts and volatile markets by taking aggressive action against some of the country’s biggest tech companies in recent months, accusing them of violating antitrust, data security and work.

Increasingly, Beijing has presented its actions as the prelude to a new stage in China’s development, one in which the enormous wealth generated during the country’s prosperous years is distributed more evenly.

At least some companies appeared to be responsive. On the same day as the meeting, Meituan posted his algorithm rules on social media and pledged to relax them, such as designating a range for on-time deliveries instead of strict deadlines.

Meituan is also planning to create an umbrella company-level union for its workers, in addition to establishing more local union branches across China, according to a person familiar with the matter. E-commerce company Inc. said it formed an umbrella union for its workers last month.

Meituan said on Tuesday that it has established a special task force to review and address its current labor and technology practices. Alibaba and Didi did not respond to requests for comment.

China’s drive to tackle the challenges of working in the tech sector comes as governments around the world question how to regulate the economy of odd jobs and allegations of widespread exploitation of workers. In May, the Biden administration blocked Trump-era regulations that would have made it easier for companies to categorize American and other workers as independent contractors. Earlier this year, the UK Supreme Court ruled that Uber Technologies Inc. drivers are entitled to benefits such as paid time off and pensions.

Contract workers working for Chinese digital platforms numbered 84 million in 2020 and represent a growing proportion of the urban workforce, according to a think tank affiliated with the country’s central planning agency. Most are paid on delivery, work long hours with few benefits, and are often paid dockside for failing to meet strict performance targets. Last winter, a Chinese worker died while working and another attempted suicide by self-immolating himself in protest against what he called unpaid fees.

Last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang sparked a national debate on social equality when he revealed that 600 million Chinese earn a monthly income of 1,000 yuan ($ 140) and that many of them had suffered disproportionately during the Covid-19 lockdown.

According to union activists and academics, the renewed attention given to labor issues by the nominally Marxist ruling Communist Party of China is likely to benefit workers to some extent, although some say the campaign appears more motivated by top-down consolidation efforts. control only by the concerns of workers.

Much of the party’s efforts have focused on forming unions. Tech companies have helped form scattered local branches, but have also dragged their feet in response to Xi’s 2015 call to expand the reach of unions, according to a government official who works on labor issues. .

Companies are now “cooperating proactively,” including creating umbrella unions that cover most employees, the official said, citing pressure from Beijing’s continued regulatory campaign targeting the industry.

Chinese unions, unlike their American counterparts, are not self-organized and do not engage in collective bargaining. Instead, they all operate under the control of a party-controlled body known as the China Federation of Trade Unions and focus on mediating labor disputes.

Meituan, for example, offered to facilitate unions as part of a broad package of behavioral remedies related to regulatory violations that would provide new opportunities for government officials to exert influence over the company, according to the company. person familiar with Meituan’s plan.

Aidan Chau, a researcher at the Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization China Labor Bulletin, said Beijing’s emphasis on regulating algorithms and its drive for redistribution are theoretical gains for Chinese workers. But it wasn’t clear how the tech companies planned to implement some of the government’s guidelines. And as independent contractors, many concert workers fall outside the legal mandate of the new unions, Mr. Chau said.

The Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security forwarded a request for comment to the Federation of Trade Unions of China, which did not respond.

“China is trying to tackle issues of redistribution without addressing the issue of representation,” said Eli Friedman, a sociology professor at Cornell University who studies state-labor relations in China. “The one thing the Chinese state doesn’t want to consider: granting rights to workers to organize themselves.

MM. Chau and Friedman both pointed to the government’s continued suppression of independent and local labor activists and researchers.

In late August, Fang Ran, a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Hong Kong, was arrested by security officers in Nanning, the provincial capital of southern Guangxi province, and charged with subversion of state power, according to an article published on social networks. by his father which his close friends have verified as genuine.

The friends said they suspected the authorities had targeted Mr. Fang because of his interest in organizing the workers. Mr Fang had strong Marxist beliefs and has championed coal miners suffering from black lung disease since he was a teenager, but his recent work was mostly academic in nature, they said.

Nanning Police forwarded a request for comment to the municipal government, which did not immediately respond.

In February, Beijing police arrested Chen Guojiang, a food delivery boy and union activist, on charges of “arguing and causing trouble,” according to information posted on a channel in the associated Telegram chat app. to Mr. Chen.

Mr. Chen was known as the head of the “Delivery Man Alliance,” a network of more than a dozen WeChat accounts that reached about 14,000 drivers, China Labor Bulletin said. He was known to speak out against online platforms for breaking the rules and sometimes to suggest other drivers protest unfair labor practices.

Mainland China-based social media accounts have been deleted since Mr. Chen’s arrest.

“Chen Guojiang was trying to push for better working conditions outside of direct state control. Now things are improving, but he is behind bars, ”said Mr. Chau, the labor law researcher.

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