A lesson from China on gig workers’ rights

Synopsis: Recently, the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court demanding that the Union government provide assistance to workers affected by the pandemic.


The petition has asked for ‘gig workers’ and ‘platform workers’ to be declared as ‘unorganised workers’ so they come under the purview of the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008.

Why this demand from gig workers?

Global practice: Owing to public pressure, two of its food delivery platforms in China committed to end the practice of forcing workers to register as ‘independent businesses’, which has long helped these platforms evade responsibilities as employers.

Invisible to frontline: pandemic has helped change the erstwhile ‘invisibility’ of delivery workers. Through 2020, a trend that spanned China, India, the U.S. and Europe saw ‘invisible workers’ being propelled to ‘frontline workers’.

In China, there was a clear transition of social discourse in favour of delivery workers. People’s Daily responded to public sentiment by ranking delivery work among the top 10 occupations.

Role of media in this transformation: a monthly Chinese magazine took an exhaustive look at the plight of delivery workers across the two food delivery platforms and the article was shared over 200 million times on the Chinese internet.

Similarly, in 2015, a TED-style talk on China’s pollution crisis got 100 million views across major video streaming sites within 48 hours of its release, resulting in policy change.

Pushback begun long before COVID-19: strikes in different parts of China have reflected this growing backlash. As food delivery platforms expanded through the pandemic period, growing massively in revenue and scale, strikes increased in numerous Chinese cities and have continued despite various barriers to collective action.

In early 2021, in successive strikes spanning over two months, delivery workers protested against poor working conditions.

What steps has China taken?

State control: The state is asserting “increased control” over major tech companies for allegedly abusing its dominant market position, via the new anti-monopolistic guidelines. In July, seven government agencies jointly passed guidelines directing online food delivery platforms that they should not set evaluation criteria based on optimisation algorithms.

Focus on common prosperity: the government now seeks to narrow a widening wealth gap that threatens the country’s economic rise. The government’s scrutiny over food delivery platforms has increased. The authoritarian context, a weak civil society and the absence of independent labour unions leaves gig workers in China with very little option but to go on strike or protest, despite the risks, to affect change.

Rights of workers: These platforms must respect the rights of delivery workers and ensure that they earn at least a minimum wage with social insurance. Many of these government initiatives have been public-driven.

What is the scenario in Indian?

Worker led movement: Any reform in this sector is led wholly by delivery workers, not the public. For 27 days in 2020, close to 3,000 delivery workers from Swiggy went on strike in Hyderabad to protest the slash in remuneration from ₹35 to ₹15 per order.

Role of Social media: This year, in the lead up to Zomato’s July IPO, several anonymous Twitter accounts set up by delivery workers called customers’ attention to what they deem as “exploitative practices” employed by platforms. The PIL in the Supreme Court is another major step in this regard.

What is the way forward?

First, Indians could make an effort to be better informed about the way platforms work by seeking out delivery workers and asking about their work conditions and the pressures they face.

Second, need to learn lesson from China that the swell of public opinion has led to government regulation and change in company policy. Similarly, India also needs collective action.

Source: This post is based on the article “A lesson from China on gig workers’ rights” published in the Hindu on 30th Sep 2021.

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