Beijing lectures Alibaba, Tencent, other Big Tech firms on gig workers’ rights despite progress from last year

  • Four government agencies met with 11 internet platforms to tell them to do more to help gig workers like food delivery personnel and ride-hailing drivers
  • Beijing issued new guidelines last year seeking to protect workers in ‘new employment forms’ and addressing issues such as income and work safety

Beijing has told 11 internet platforms including Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings to better protect gig workers’ rights as the government continues its scrutiny of Big Tech firms in an area that has become a flashpoint in recent years.

At a meeting held by four government agencies, the companies were instructed to “have political, ideological and actionable consciousness of” gig workers, according to a statement from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MHRSS) released on Friday. The statement noted progress the companies have made in implementing new rules on worker rights, but concluded that they could do more.

Also present at the meeting were ride-hailing giants Didi Chuxing and Geely-backed Cao Cao Mobility and food delivery services Meituan and Ele.me, a subsidiary of Alibaba, which also owns the South China Morning Post.

In addition to the MHRSS, the Ministry of Transport, State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR) and All-China Federation of Trade Unions were involved in what the statement called “administrative instruction”.

The platforms shall “deeply understand the workers’ needs, increase the supervision of employment partners’ protection of their rights, keep improving algorithms and labour rules on the platforms and improve the institutional mechanism” for protecting their rights and interests, the authorities said.

The new order comes as part of a review of workers’ rights following guidelines issued in July last year by seven government agencies. Those guidelines were designed to guarantee the basic rights of workers in “new employment forms”, including food delivery riders, drivers on ride-hailing platforms and other gig economy jobs. That same month, the SAMR and six other authorities published a separate policy to protect labour rights for food delivery workers, including issues such as a base income, work safety, food safety, a decent working environment and access to insurance coverage.

The move comes as Beijing’s efforts to rein in Big Tech last year have moved into 2022, with the government placing greater emphasis on consumer and worker rights. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping made “common prosperity” a key policy goal, which aims for a broader distribution of wealth.

Complaints from gig workers have risen over the past few years, with many saying they lack proper labour safeguards.

In 2020, China’s Renwu magazine published a report exposing the risks that food delivery riders face as they rush to meet tight deadlines set by company algorithms. A year earlier, one of Meituan’s deliverymen stabbed a supermarket employee to death, prompting a debate on social media about the pressures that gig workers face. Meituan pledged at the time to make improvements to its platform.

By the end of 2020, China had about 84 million gig workers, according to the MHRSS, a number that may have been impacted by the slowing economy during the Covid-19 pandemic. The issue of gig workers’ rights is especially pressing during the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, which starts on February 1, as workers look to collect their full earnings in order to make it home for the biggest family gathering of the year.

Author: Coco Feng, SCMP

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