Jenny Chan. 2021., Sociologias 23(57): 58-82.
How do food delivery platform firms, such as Meituan (operated by Tencent) and
Ele.me (owned by Alibaba), manage couriers through service contracting rather than
formal employment? How do couriers experience control and autonomy at work?
Using observation and interviews, the author finds that a combination of data-driven
surveillance systems and customer feedback mechanisms are incentivizing workers’
efforts. Corporate utilization of both manual and emotional labor is critical to realizing
profits. Individual freedom is framed in a way that crowdsourced couriers are not
required to work a minimum amount of time. Flexibility enabled by the algorithmic
management, however, cuts both ways. When there is less demand, the platform
corporations automatically reduce their dependence on labor. With variable food
orders and piece rates, workers’ minimum earnings are not guaranteed. In the
absence of Chinese legal protections over the fast-growing food delivery sector,
informal workers are desperately struggling for livelihood.◊
Keywords: informal work, algorithmic management, emotional labor, food delivery
workers, rural migrants, China.
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