Workers’ spontaneous struggles and resistance in the on-demand economy in China

Lin, Ou (2023) Workers’ spontaneous struggles and resistance in the on-demand economy in China. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis concerns on-demand workers’ struggles and resistance in China and the question, in particular, of how the workers’ choices are structured by the particular legal, social and economic contexts within which they live and work. As a novel form of employment, on-demand work has gained popularity and has attracted a large workforce; however, the regulation of on-demand work is still in its early stages, leaving many workers without adequate labour protections. Many on-demand workers have expressed their grievances and discontent through a variety of individual and collective actions. What remains unclear is why they feel discontent and what factors influence their choice of different forms of struggle and resistance. These factors also give some indication as to how labour laws could be amended to provide effective protection of on-demand workers’ rights and interests.

Advocating an ‘economic sociology of law’ approach to the study of labour law, Dukes (2019) suggests that contracting for work ought to be conceived of as social behaviour that is likely economically motivated and, at the same time, influenced by actors’ perceptions of the applicable rules, social norms, and shared understandings of what is standard or fair or reasonable practice in the specific context. Here, this approach is used to analyse and explain how Chinese delivery riders, as the targeted participants in the qualitative research, think of their work and make decisions that are influenced by their economic interests and their perceptions of labour laws, social norms, and shared understandings.

The research illustrates that delivery riders have a multifaceted perception of their work. On the one hand, they experience precarious working conditions, disrespect, and discrimination under the bureaucratic and algorithmic control of platforms, worsened by the presence of a duopoly market. Compared to more stable factory jobs, on the other hand, on-demand work provides better opportunities for making money and enjoying flexibility and freedom within the confines of existing labour laws and social and economic circumstances.

Individual riders have attempted to improve their working conditions through both formal and informal channels. Due to a number of factors, however, ii
including the use of outsourcing by the platforms, the limitations of litigation, the unregulated nature of the platform labour market, unequal bargaining power, the lack of anti-retaliation laws and unreliable labour security administration, there is very little room for riders to voice their concerns. Riders have also attempted to ‘game’ the algorithms and to use social media and mainstream news-reporting but these strategies are not always effective. When there is no good alternative, radical forms of resistance may occur, including self-harm and suicide.

On-demand riders have formed occupational communities and have used these to address the challenges collectively, however, the success of their protests can be inhibited by the weak trade union system and non-supportive laws and government attitudes towards collective action. Platforms may try to undermine riders’ solidarity by using various repressive strategies. Moreover, the deteriorating employment environment also hinders collective mobilisation.

The current legal, social, and economic context constrains the individual and collective struggles of riders in a wide variety of ways. While they may have a basic awareness of their legal rights, on-demand riders show a strong tendency to prioritise the right to subsistence or the economic conditions necessary for subsistence when attempting to express their discontent. Prioritisation of the right to subsistence or the economic conditions necessary for subsistence is also reflected in policy documents issued by the government in China to regulate on-demand work. To truly improve the working conditions of on-demand workers, it would be necessary to grant them the right to strike with the support of strong trade unions and to improve their rights to social security.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Work On Demand project funded by the European Research Council (grant agreement No 757395).
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HD Industries. Land use. Labor
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
K Law > K Law (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Law
Supervisor's Name: Dukes, Professor Ruth and Wong, Dr. Mark
Date of Award: 2023
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2023-83711
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 05 Jul 2023 14:58
Last Modified: 06 Jul 2023 08:01
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.83711
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