Aidan Chau and Caitlin E. Schultz’s Year in Reflection

In our latest Year in Reflection, we spoke to Aidan Chau and Caitlin E. Schultz at China Labour Bulletin, Hong Kong.

In 2022, which workers’ struggle in Asia would you like to highlight?

In terms of potential for cross-regional worker solidarity in China, we are keeping an eye on the recent strikes by Lalamove drivers. Lalamove is a platform economy company that offers cargo and freight services.

The company recently made changes to how rates were calculated. From 16 November, Lalamove drivers staged a three-day strike with sixteen distinct demands, including opposing a reduction on drivers’ commissions and a new mileage calculation method. 

The strike quickly resonated with drivers from other cities. Workers in Wuhan, Changsha, Zhengzhou, and Quanzhou staged their own protests. The speed of the strike spread is impressive, and it quickly caught the government’s attention. After the first day of the strike, Lalamove and other logistics companies were summoned by the authorities and asked to change their cost-cutting policies in favor of workers.

It has often been thought that the platform economy dispersed workers and therefore inhibited organizing, compared to traditional sectors like manufacturing. But the Lalamove strikes in 2022 – and similar strikes in 2018 – show that the platform model actually has the potential to unite a greater number of workers, not limited to a single workplace or region.

Another factor is that drivers travel between provinces, so they have greater access to information about what is happening in other cities. And, they self-identity as “fellow truck driver,” indicating that they view themselves as a sectoral group with united interests.

What is one labor issue that you have been focusing on?

We are interested in the reform of China’s official trade union, the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), to better represent workers’ actual needs. Workers in China continuously raise their voices and find creative ways to assert their labor rights, but they face many barriers to independently organizing, including criminalization.

It is easy to assume that the ACFTU is largely ineffective and will not be able to meaningfully change. With over one million officials dispersed at the national, provincial, municipal, and local levels, it is frustrating that the union has not fulfilled its role in representing workers. But we find that the official union is in the process of reform, with some local branches of the union willing to step up to represent workers. 

So far, the results of the union reform have been mixed. The union has paid more attention to specific categories of vulnerable workers, increased its provision of legal aid in cases related to wage arrears and work injuries, and even negotiated for collective contracts in some industries and jurisdictions.

However, more often than not, the union turns workers away, resorts to sending workers through complicated legal channels rather than fulfilling its role of protecting workers’ interests before rights violations occur, and many of its initiatives are in name only and fail to address root causes of worker grievances. 

Is there any interesting insight you would like to share?

National and regional efforts to implement legally binding instruments such as corporate social responsibility or human rights due diligence legislations have the potential to be meaningful for workers around the world. This needs to be rooted at the workplace level and involve continuous collective bargaining. This also must be joined with coordinated efforts from a wide range of civil society actors, including advocacy groups, the media, and consumers. Particularly in the garments and electronics sectors in Asia, we seek greater transparency and accountability from brands. 

What is one book that you read and would recommend?

We appreciated Eli Friedman’s Urbanization of People, which brought a very human approach to policy making and implementation challenges in China.

Friedman studies urban schools for migrant worker children in Beijing, looking at a granular level at the challenges faced by those excluded from urban residency. For migrant workers to gain urban residency is exceedingly difficult, and working around the issue to access public services including education for their children is also an unfair game. By intentionally restricting the movement of the population into cities where there are more diverse labor needs, inequality is exacerbated for generations. 

In addition to lacking residence permits that grant them access to social services, migrant workers often lack labor contracts, and, because they are a mobile population, their pay and benefits may not always follow them. These administrative barriers have a cascading effect when trying to legally enforce their labor rights, and workers face dead-ends no matter what they do.

What should we be paying attention in 2023?

This coming year, we will focus on the challenges workers face in the gig economy in China. Our focus has been on food delivery drivers and ride-hailing drivers, because these sectors have seen a massive influx of workers, and their labor is most typical of the platform model.

We plan to map out the sector in China to better understand the fragmentation of labor relations. Platforms have contracted out various elements of employment, with a third party paying the workers’ wages, another entity paying their social security, and other complicated corporate structures, making it difficult for workers to assert their labor rights vis-a-vis any of them. We believe these legal relations should be legally streamlined.