China: Leader of Delivery Riders Alliance Detained, Solidarity Movement Repressed
On February 25 “Mengzhu,” a well-known food delivery worker activist, was detained by Beijing police in a raid on the group apartment where he lives with other delivery workers. Four of them were also detained.
While two workers were released after questioning at the police station, Mengzhu—whose real name is Chen Guojiang—and two of his close friends are still detained. He has been charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a catch-all category often used against activists in China.
The news quickly drew public attention and several Chinese media organizations reported on Chen’s detention. But these reports were blocked or deleted by state censors by the beginning of March.
Chinese netizens (Internet activists) tried various ways to disperse an open letter by Chen’s father seeking assistance with legal fees and donated more than 120,000 yuan ($18,350) within 10 hours.
On March 16 Chen’s WeChat channel, where the open letter had been posted by his sister, was permanently banned by the Computer and Internet Supervisory Department.
Online discussion of Chen’s case in March was also censored and shut down by the police, who questioned several social media users who had forwarded posts in WeChat groups. Some lawyers and students involved in contacting Chen’s family were investigated and harassed.
In addition to the police of Beijing and Guizhou, the police in Shaanxi, where Chen’s sister lives, and in Shenzhen, where some delivery workers discussed Chen’s case online, were also involved. The wide police actions indicate that authorities attach great importance to Chen’s case.
A main concern of the Chinese government is preventing the development of any independent worker movements. Often when protests arise some concessions will be granted while leaders are arrested and the movement is dispersed.
LEADER OF DELIVERY RIDERS ALLIANCE
Chen’s pseudonym “Menghzu” (盟主) is short for “Leader of the Delivery Riders Alliance” (外送江湖骑士联盟盟主). He established the Alliance with a friend in Beijing in 2019. He published short videos about delivery workers’ daily work experiences, calling for them to build solidarity and fight unjust conditions.
Chen set up 16 chat groups on the popular Chinese social media app WeChat, reaching about 15,000 delivery workers over the last two years. A public Delivery Riders Alliance channel which he operates on the app provides free legal consultations and various kinds of assistance to delivery workers. This has included mediating disputes with restaurants and security guards, towing and repairs of motorbikes, negotiations with insurance companies, and even providing free or cheap accommodation for new arrivals to Beijing.
The Delivery Riders Alliance developed into a union-like organization for food delivery workers in Beijing and had connections with self-organized delivery workers in other cities.
Besides the online platform, Chen connected with delivery workers offline. He showed up on-site to offer help when delivery workers encountered workplace problems. In some cases, he personally came to the scene of an accident to assist an injured driver. And he organized a monthly collective dinner with delivery workers. At the end of 2020, the 20th dinner drew 200 participants.
EXPOSED BONUS SCAM
Shortly before being detained, Chen launched an online campaign to denounce delivery platform Ele.me’s Spring Festival bonus program. In his latest video, published February 19, he recorded several Ele.me workers on strike to protest bonus rules set by the company, which they believed were intended to withhold a promised bonus.
This video was watched 9.6 million times online and the topic (similar to a hashtag on Twitter) was viewed more than 200 million times on Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms. This provoked great public criticism against Ele.me, which is owned by Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce company. Ele.me had to respond to public criticism, openly apologize to delivery workers, and promise to compensate them.
But the apology and promise were criticized by netizens as tricky and empty. Ele.me had said it would launch more rewards campaigns for riders to participate in and improve the bonus rules to let more riders win rewards. Riders criticized these changes as “compensation with more exploitation.”
One day before he was taken by the police, Chen warned that if he was not heard from, he was being detained.
His co-workers drew an analogy between Chen’s detention now and one in 2019, when he called on delivery workers of Ele.me and Meituan, another big platform, to stop taking orders, to protest a pay cut.
In a recent interview, Chen said that the companies noticed his WeChat activities and called the police to detain him, to prevent him from gaining wider influence.
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In 2019, Chen was detained for 26 days. Few people knew of him at the time and he spent all 26 days alone without allies or public support. But this time, his detention has caused a big stir among delivery workers and the public.
INCREASING PUBLIC SCRUTINY
This incident is an example of a rising public backlash against Chinese delivery platforms over precarious employment practices and inhuman labor control based on algorithms. Millions of delivery workers work under these harsh conditions. There are 7 million food delivery workers in China, according to recent figures from Meituan and Ele.me.
Public sympathy for delivery workers first gained momentum at the end of 2019 when they became an essential workforce, relied upon to transport food and medical materials during the Covid lockdown. They were recognized as heroes.
In 2020, a report by Renwu, a widely-read Chinese magazine, titled “Delivery Riders, Trapped in the System,” again made delivery workers a focus of public discussion. The report showed that delivery platforms ignored safety and delivery workers’ physical limits.
“Riders can never rely on their individual power to fight back against the times assigned by the system. All we can do is exceed the speed limit in order to make up for lost time,” a Meituan rider told Renwu.
The ruthless time limits and penalties imposed on workers create extreme pressure that contributes to high turnover, accidents, injuries, and deaths. The delivery workers who make the system run have no control over the rules.
The public criticism ignited by media coverage like the Renwu report contrasts with the platforms’ portrayal of themselves as tech innovators, job creators, and promoters of convenient lifestyles. The criticism has put pressure on the government to regulate the platforms’ employment practices and give workers more protection.
OFFICIALS FORCED TO RESPOND
The government is facing the dilemma of placing more control over the big e-commerce companies, on the one hand, while relying on these businesses to promote consumption and absorb the surplus workforce on the other. Unemployment has become a pressing issue for the government, both due to the immediate shock of the pandemic and to structural changes in the economy that have led to loss of manufacturing jobs.
Delivery Workers on Strike
China Labour Bulletin says its “Strike Map records that strikes involving delivery drivers, mainly over wage cuts, increased to 45 in 2019, up from 10 in 2018. The Work Accident Map also shows that in 2018, 121 drivers were involved in road accidents, in which 19 died. Although protests by food delivery workers declined significantly last year because of the pandemic and a massive influx of new drivers into the industry, there are now signs that frustrated workers have returned to collective action.
“On March 1, delivery drivers for online platform Meituan went on strike to protest a decrease in delivery wages in at least two cities, Shenzhen and Tongxiang in Zhejiang. There was another strike reported the following day by Meituan drivers in Linyi, Shandong. On March 8, Ele.me customers took to Weibo to complain about slow or nonexistent deliveries, which suggests that more workers were on strike, although it is difficult to confirm this due to sensitivity over reports of social unrest during the ongoing National People’s Congress.”
But despite enormous public sympathy and political attention, delivery workers’ conditions have not improved in the past two years. The platforms continually push down the price per order and tighten time limits, while also designing an employment system to separate delivery workers into different groups and lead them to compete with each other.
Chen has condemned the platforms’ attempts to segment delivery workers and called for workers’ solidarity across platforms, categories of service, and locations. He argued that the only way drivers could improve their conditions was to form a “delivery workers’ association” to negotiate with the platforms collectively.
In 2018, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), the official labor federation, named delivery workers one of its eight key sectors. But the ACFTU is the only legal union federation in China and is subordinate to the ruling Communist Party. It has continually proven a poor representative of workers, and there are no mechanisms for democratic control. These issues are compounded for delivery drivers, who are largely informal workers and therefore outside the ACTFU’s official purview. In interviews, Chen said that the official union was “remote to delivery workers.”
It is well known that Chinese authorities are ready to suppress any autonomous union organization, with many leading independent labor activists arrested over the past few years. The detention of Chen and the crackdown on his supporters is another case of the government allying with big companies to suppress workers’ grassroots organizations with unlimited police power.
Chen remains in detention, represented by a lawyer who says he cannot discuss the case publicly.
For ongoing details of Chen’s case, follow @Fguojiang on Twitter.
Karl Hu is a labor observer and activist from China.