According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the proportion of migrant workers in the secondary industry, mainly manufacturing and construction, decreased from 56.8 percent in 2013 to 48.1 percent in 2020, while the proportion in the tertiary industry, which includes services both online and offline, and real estate sectors, increased from 42.6 percent in 2013 to 51.5 percent in 2020.
“The rise of flexible employment has a lot to do with the transformation of China’s labor-industrial structure,” Sun Ping, an assistant researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Journalism and Communication, told NewsChina. As factories and labor-intensive industries relocate to Southeast Asia, India and Africa, China’s workers are moving to other industries, Sun said.
According to Zeng Xiangquan, director of the Employment Research Institute at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, using the term “flexible employment” to describe the gig economy is misleading. “Flexibility can refer to either time or place, such as working remotely. But now the media, as well as some government documents, use the term flexible employment to describe informal employment or what the International Labor Organization refers to as non-standard employment,” Zeng told NewsChina. “If we use these latter definitions, the number of gig workers in China is significantly more than 200 million.”
Wen Xiaoyi believes that transitional stages of labor-industrial reform inevitably affect traditional employment. “The gig economy acts like an ‘employment reservoir,’ a supplement to formal employment that can support the job market when employment in the real economy is not optimistic,” Wen said. “From this perspective, national policies should support the development of flexible employment.”
Another factor driving China’s gig economy is businesses cutting labor costs to maximize profits, Wen said. After the 2008 financial crisis, quantitative easing led to inflation, which attracted large amounts of hot money to internet-based industries. This meant investment from international financial capital motivated businesses to adopt asset-light approaches, which involved outsourcing workers through subcontractors and cooperating with platforms, Sun Ping said.
Platforms also make getting part-time work easier. According to data released by delivery app Meituan, the number of riders on its platform increased from 2.2 million in 2017 to 5.27 million in 2021.
The trend goes beyond food delivery and ride hailing. Liu Fen, in her 40s, has worked with a housekeeping app for four years. She works 10 hours a day, five days a week for 43 yuan (US$4.4) an hour. According to an industry survey by Liang Meng, an associate professor at the School of Humanities and Development at China Agricultural University in Beijing, internet platforms improve professionalism and specialization in their trades. “Platform training and management can help to improve workers’ expertise in housekeeping. As a result, it improves the public image of housekeepers, while increasing awareness of the social value of housekeeping professionals and overall respect for domestic work,” Liang said.
Housekeeping apps have clear advantages over traditional housekeeping firms in terms of volume, which makes recruitment easier. Liang said that internet-based housekeeping services allow the labor market to benefit from capital investments directly.
Zeng acknowledged the issues that come along with China’s high proportion of flexible employment. Many join the gig economy reluctantly as formal employment becomes increasingly scarce. “In the long term, all kinds of ‘flexible employment’ including the platform economy may face issues of stability, sustainability, career development and social security, which requires more in-depth research to find solutions,” Zeng said.
Like many others, Zhang Linzhou chose delivery because of the flexibility and freedom of the job. Although platform management is very strict and the algorithm constantly pushes riders to be faster, Zhang said he can handle the challenges. However, he only takes two days off a month and cannot take breaks while on the job, because he must compete with other riders for orders.