In 2016, I began to study the consequences of automation in China’s electronics manufacturing sector. Both government and business actors consider automation a critical solution for upgrading China’s economy. Developing robotics has been one of China’s top priorities since 2010s. Several local governments have launched initiatives focused on replacing humans with robots and other automated machinery. I was curious about how manufacturing workers would consider such business efforts and government initiatives.
To my surprise, many of them, particularly male workers, did not care about automation because they wanted to work in the emerging platform sector. They complained about the harsh factory conditions and saw the platform economy as a land of freedom and opportunity. Then I followed the lives of some manufacturing workers from factories to food-delivery platforms. In the beginning, many of my interviewees were fascinated by the game-like design of delivery applications and the environment in which they could use mobile phones at work and were not confined to factories or dorms.
However, approximately one year after moving to the platform sector, a former factory worker told me that he went on strike. The strike occurred in the absence of assistance from grassroots labor NGOs or government-organized trade unions. I was surprised and wondered why and how such a strike had occurred, given that he appreciated his new job so much when I had talked to him previously. Then I began to study labor contention in China’s food-delivery platform sector. Between 2017 and 2019, I conducted 68 in-depth interviews with couriers, managers, an in-house lawyer, and an engineer, while doing online and offline ethnography. I also analyzed 87 cases of strikes and protests.
China’s online food delivery market is highly concentrated. In the past, there were three major players: Meituan, Ele.me, and Baidu Delivery. Like platform companies in other countries, food-delivery platforms in China leveraged their capital and used subsidies to take over market share. The competition became stabilized in 2017, as Ele.me acquired Baidu Delivery. Now the market has a duopoly structure, with Meituan and Ele.me as the two major players. The stabilization of the market means platform companies have enormous market power to impose control over couriers and restaurants. Viewing the platform economy as a new engine of growth and a reservoir to absorb surplus labor, the Chinese government has not seriously tackled new labor and market competition problems that emerged in the platform economy.
Initially, my investigation focused on platform companies’ algorithmic control and management as many studies in other contexts examine such an evolving mode of control. However, after a while, I found that although most of the platform workers I interviewed were angry with algorithmic control, they were more likely to initiate or join collection actions only under certain circumstances. I realized I would have to understand how multiple—instead of just one—dimensions of labor control and management operate, overlap, and lead or not lead to collective resistance.
In Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lawrence Lessig theorizes the co-existence of multiple models of control and regulation in society—law, technology, and social or organizational norms. Drawing on his idea, I develop the concept of “platform architecture” to examine the technological, legal, and organizational aspects of control and management in the labor process and the variable relationships between them. Technological control and management refers to control and management that uses artifacts or non-physical, systematic methods of making or doing things. Platform economies also require legal arrangements that govern work and delimit the rights and obligations of various parties involved. Most studies of platform economies concentrate on the contractual classification of workers (independent contractors vs. employees), but I also find other aspects of contractual design to be critical as well. The organizational dimension of control and management refers to the extent to which management personnel can exercise normative influence and surveillance on platform workers.
Labor scholarship suggests employers want workers to be both dependable and disposable. Indeed, Meituan and Ele.me operate two types of platforms—service platforms and gig platforms—to balance security and flexibility of the workforce. Service platform couriers (hereafter, SPCs) and gig platform couriers (hereafter, GPCs) both pick up food from a restaurant and deliver it to a customer. However, SPCs are full-time employees who work for a service station—an actual physical station used to coordinate within a locality. GPCs, in contrast, can decide when they want to work and do not share a workplace. Service platforms and gig platforms have distinct architectures and exercise technological, legal, and organizational control and management differently. Although economic activities under both service and gig platforms are digitally mediated, service platforms rely less on technological control and management; they have labor contracts governing work relations; and they emphasize regular supervisory interactions between workers and human supervisors. In comparison, gig platforms rely more on technologies to automate control and management; they rely on work relations that fall outside of China’s labor law; and they see almost zero regular interaction between gig workers and platform operators.
SPCs and GPCs both work under stringent algorithmic control, have similar demographic backgrounds and prior employment histories, and do not enjoy social insurance, despite their different employment statuses—and yet, they have different perceptions of their respective work relations. Whereas most SPCs do not consider their work relations unfair or exploitative, most GPCs do. Moreover, GPCs are much more likely to go on strike, protest, and express solidarity, even though they face higher barriers to collective action due to the atomization of their work. These patterns of labor contention across the two types of platforms provide an opportunity to examine how and when labor control and management leads to collective resistance.
I find that, within the service platform, technological control and management can cause dissatisfaction among SPCs, but the legal and organizational design of the platform architecture often serves to contain grievances and make collective action less appealing. Collective contention seems less appealing to SPCs because their injustice frames (i.e., violation of contracts and labor law) are based on well-established legal claims and they can communicate with management personnel. Labor contracts help stabilize labor relations. SPCs have clear expectations and feel their employers are constrained by contractual terms and labor law. No one challenges the legitimacy of the legal order based on contracts and labor law. Furthermore, the platform architecture’s organizational design—particularly the constant presence of supervisors—restricts the amount of free space for organizing collective contention. The organizational constraints through franchise contracts motivate supervisors to perform emotional labor and exercise normative influence—and surveillance—on SPCs.
In contrast, under the gig platform, technological control and management leads to grievances and perceived injustice. This dimension of control and management overlaps at times with, and is reinforced by, legal and organizational control and management, generating moments of escalation. The contractual design enables intense algorithmic control and management by giving platforms unbridled legal and technological power.
When gig platforms exercise their unbridled contractual power to change platform rules, workers not only discern this power but also consider it and the rules made by such power to be “despotic.” GPCs can mobilize restaurant owners and GPCs who work for the other gig platform to join collective action because they all suffer alike from asymmetric contractual power and share similar injustice frames. GPCs’ injustice frames (i.e., the illegitimacy of contracts) and the organizational design of the platform architecture make institutionalized dispute resolutions and individual informal legal mobilization seem implausible to GPCs. The platform companies’ focus on managing the platform system rather than couriers further renders free spaces available for GPCs to turn moments of escalation into moments of collective action and solidarity.
Such solidarity is cross-cutting, uneven, and contested. On the one hand, gig couriers working for one platform company can mobilize support and solidarity from restaurant owners and couriers working for the other company. Some solidarity can prompt compromise from gig platform companies. On the other hand, I find the uneven and contested nature of solidarity. Core actors in collective action share strong solidarity and support. Beyond core actors, however, many GPCs are united only by their shared animosity to the platforms. As a result of shared sentiments, potential sanctions, and curiosity, many GPCs showed up at strikes or protest sites, but only as bystanders. Some non-participating gig workers even encountered threats and violence.
Many of my findings about the relationship between platform architecture and collective resistance can be generalized to other contexts. There are many similarities in how gig platforms exercise technological, legal, and organizational control and management in China, the United States, Australia, and Europe. Nonetheless, processes and factors beyond the labor process—from state regulation to political regime, trade union activity, differentiation of labor forces, and labor market—can influence labor contention as well.
Ya-Wen Lei is Associate Professor of Sociology at Harvard University
This article is based on Ya-Wen Lei, “Delivering Solidarity: Platform Architecture and Collective Contention in China’s Platform Economy.” American Sociological Review. February 2021. doi:10.1177/0003122420979980
Image: Gig economy delivery driver in Shanghai, https://www.piqsels.com/en/public-domain-photo-jwjkh