FlyTitle: The gig economy

Amid the pandemic, home-delivery services are proving vital in China. They are powered by a new sort of worker

在疫病大流行期间,送货上门服务在中国发挥了至关重要的作用。他们由新一类工人提供【新冠报道】

经济学人双语版-看得见,听得到 Visible and vocal

DURING THE recent peak of covid-19 cases in China, large metal shelving-units appeared at entrances to residential compounds across Shanghai. Outsiders were not allowed in. But somewhere was needed to hold the myriad packages ordered online by the millions of residents who were staying at home. The shelves groaned under the weight of disinfectant and vitamin tablets, sacks of rice and flour, cooking oil and vegetables.

中国日前经历新冠疫情高峰期间,上海各地的小区门口出现了一排排金属大货架。这些小区不允许外部人员进入,但需要一个地方来存放足不出户的数百万居民从网上订购的海量包裹。这些架子上堆满了消毒剂、维生素片、大袋米面、食用油和蔬菜。

Food-delivery firms played a crucial role in helping people in China endure the lockdown that began in Hubei province in late January, and the less stringent forms of quarantine that were subsequently implemented in cities across the country. Since early March there have been very few newly detected cases of covid-19 except among travellers from abroad. So controls have eased, allowing shops and restaurants to reopen. But many people are playing safe and staying largely housebound. State media have been calling home-delivery workers “heroes”. Few would disagree.

中国自1月下旬起在湖北省封城,随后在全国各地的市镇实施了相对宽松一些的封锁。食品配送公司为帮助民众捱过封锁期发挥了至关重要的作用。自3月初以来,除境外输入病例以外,本地新增确诊病例极少。因此管控已经放宽,商店和餐馆获准重新开张。但许多人谨慎行事,大部分时间仍待在家里。官方媒体一直把送货上门的人员誉为“英雄”。对此应该没人会反对。

Even before the crisis they were beloved of urbanites. The combination of an abundant supply of cheap labour, a large middle class and near-universal access to smartphones had fostered the growth of online food-delivery services to a degree unmatched in the rich world. People could have everything from coffee to congee whisked to them in under 30 minutes on the back of a scooter, typically by one of the sector’s two titans, Ele.me and Meituan-Dianping. More than 400m people, or about half of the country’s internet users, had encountered a waimai xiaoge, or “takeaway lad” (more than nine in ten are men) at their door. Residents had become so used to receiving hot meals from them that they jokingly compared them to parents.

即使在危机发生以前,他们就已经深受城市居民的喜爱。源源不断的廉价劳动力、庞大的中产阶级人群和几乎无处不在的智能手机结合在一起,推动了网上外卖服务迅速增长,达到富裕国家无法比拟的程度。人们可以在下单后30分钟内拿到从咖啡到稀饭等各种食物。它们通常由该行业里的两大巨头——饿了么和美团点评的外卖员放在电动车的后箱里递送。超过四亿人——约占中国互联网用户的一半——曾让“外卖小哥”(超过九成外卖员是男性)送货上门。城市居民已经非常习惯从这些小哥那里接过热饭热菜,戏称其为“衣食父母”。

After the novel coronavirus hit, their services became a lifeline. When officials told firms to stay shut, they allowed exceptions for “essential” services, including those delivering cooked food and groceries. Wary of eating meals prepared by others, many people turned to online supermarkets. Sales of dumpling wrappers and sauces grew more than sevenfold on Meituan’s grocery service—even as takeout orders more than halved, as the giant reported in a downbeat first-quarter forecast. The new joke is that the covid-19 epidemic has turned China into a nation of chefs.

疫病来袭后,外卖员的服务变得性命交关。官员们下令企业停工,但允许保留一些“基本”服务,包括递送熟食和食品杂货。许多人对别人制作饭菜的安全性不放心,转而从网上超市买杂货。根据美团对第一季度营收的悲观预测,其外卖订单减少超过一半,但下属便利超商的饺子皮和调味酱销售额增长了七倍不止。人们现在又开玩笑说,疫情把中国变成了一个厨师大国。

The lives of the xiaoge have changed, too. Zhang Shuai, a 24-year-old from the central city of Zhengzhou who delivers for Meituan in Shanghai, has to wear a mask while working. The firm takes his temperature twice a day, notes it on a card pinned to his jacket and uploads it to the app for users to see. He undergoes many more checks when he picks up orders and carries them into residential compounds, most of which are now open again to outsiders.

外卖小哥们的生活也改变了。来自中部城市郑州的24岁的张帅(音译)在上海为美团送外卖,工作时必须戴口罩。公司每天给他测两次体温,用卡片记录结果并别在他的外套上,同时也上传到应用中供用户查看。现在大多数小区已经重新对外开放,他在餐馆取货和送货进小区时还要经过许多道检查。

Yet the job is still alluring to people like Mr Zhang. Indeed, he signed up with Meituan when infections were mounting. It was just too hard to find any other job, he says. And, at 10,000 yuan ($1,400) a month, his earnings are higher than the average urban wage in Shanghai, partly thanks to subsidies from Meituan and tips from grateful customers. He will quit only when the disease ends. Another migrant worker says he shares his single-room accommodation with five other riders. Is he anxious about living cheek-by-jowl with them? “I’m not afraid of death,” he grins, speeding off.

不过这份工作仍然吸引着张帅这样的人。实际上,他是在感染数字上升时和美团签约的。别的工作都太难找了,他说。而且,他每月可以赚一万块,已经比上海的城市平均工资还高,部分原因是美团给了补贴,还有一些心存感激的用户会打赏。他会一直干到疫情完全结束。另一个外地来的务工者说自己和另外五个骑手住在一个单人间里。不怕和他们挤在一起吗? “我不怕死。”他咧嘴一笑,发动车子走了。

The gig economy has transformed Chinese cities. Young workers from villages were once largely invisible to urban residents as they toiled on production lines. Now many of them eschew regimented factory work in favour of less structured lives. They have become omnipresent, clad in their firms’ coloured jackets and weaving perilously through traffic. Millions also work for other kinds of app-based transport services, for example as couriers or drivers for ride-hailing companies.

零工经济已经改变了中国的城市。过去,从农村来的年轻工人在生产线上劳碌,基本上不被城市居民所看见。现在,他们中的许多人不愿去严格死板的工厂工作,而选择以更加散漫的方式谋生。他们无所不在,穿着公司的亮色外套,在人流车流中危险地穿梭。除了外卖员,还有数以百万计的人为其他基于应用的运输服务业工作,比如送快递或做网约车司机。

The xiaoge have helped build food delivery in China into a $46bn business, the world’s largest and twice the size of America’s. In 2018 Meituan and Ele.me had about 6m riders between them. Demand for workers is growing fast. Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, reckons Meituan will need more than 1m delivery people a day next year, 200,000 more than last year. On average last summer, its yellow-jacketed army handled 20,000 orders a minute.

外卖小哥已经帮助中国的食品配送服务发展成为一项460亿美元的业务,规模为全球最大,是美国的两倍。2018年,美团和饿了么共有约600万名骑手。对员工的需求正在迅速增长。研究公司盛博估计,到明年美团每天将需要100多万名外卖员,比去年多20万人。去年夏天,身穿黄色夹克的美团大军每分钟平均递送两万份订单。

For migrants from the countryside, the job is an unusually easy ticket to city life. Factory workers must have a skill, and often a home-town peer to vouch for them. But some riders are hired as soon as they upload copies of an identity card and health certificate to an app. The pay is usually better than on an assembly line.

对于来自农村的打工者而言,这份工作是打开城市生活超乎想象的捷径。做工厂工人必须具备一定的技能,通常还要有一名同乡做担保人。但是,要做外卖员,有时只要把身份证和健康证明的副本上传到应用就成。收入通常比在装配线上高。

Nearly one-third of Meituan’s riders were once factory hands. Their switch reflects a nationwide trend. In 2018, for the first time, more migrant workers took up jobs in services than in manufacturing.

美团的骑手有近三分之一曾在工厂工作。他们转换行业反映出一个全国趋势。2018年,外来务工者从事服务业的人数首次超过了制造业。

The epidemic could result in even more of them doing gig work. Many of China’s battered companies are shedding staff, but not food-delivery firms. Freshippo, Alibaba’s e-grocer, has engaged 2,000 staff from 30 idled restaurant chains. Since the start of the epidemic Meituan has hired more than 450,000 new riders, most of them for work in their home provinces because of virus-related travel restrictions.

疫情可能会导致他们中的更多人去打零工。中国许多遭受重创的企业正在裁员,外卖公司却是另一番景象。阿里巴巴的食品杂货电商盒马已经从30家停业的连锁餐厅“借调”了2000名员工。疫情爆发以来,美团已经招募了45万多名新骑手。因为与病毒有关的出行限制,其中许多人都在自己老家所在的省份送货。

In recent years gig jobs have given workers a cushion, says Ji Wenwen of the China University of Labour Relations. In Hegang, a coal town by the Amur river on the Russian border, a tenth of takeaway riders were once miners. One of them is Luo Qiong, who makes twice as much with Ele.me as he did down the pit. “I earn more than local civil servants,” he says proudly.

中国劳动关系学院的纪雯雯说,近年来,零工工作给劳动者提供了“缓冲器”。在中俄边境黑龙江边的煤城鹤岗,外卖骑手中有一成人过去是矿工。罗琼(音译)是他们中的一个,他在饿了么赚的钱是他做矿工时的两倍。“我赚的比我们这里的公务员还多。”他自豪地说。

The dreams of today’s migrants are often different from those of factory workers in the earlier years of China’s industrial boom. Many have never worked the land and have no intention of returning to it. They are better educated. A fifth of delivery workers have been to university or vocational college. And they want respect. In surveys, nearly half of riders at Meituan express anxiety about their status. Fewer than one in three at Ele.me feel they are respected enough by customers.

和中国刚刚开始产业腾飞时的工厂工人相比,今天的外来务工者怀抱的梦想往往有所不同。许多人从没耕过地,也无意回农村。他们受过更好的教育。外卖、快递人员中有五分之一上过大学或职校。他们希望获得尊重。在调查中,近一半美团骑手表达了对自己社会地位的焦虑。在饿了么,不到三分之一的人认为自己获得了用户足够的尊重。

Such frustrations may grow. During the epidemic, firms rolled out contactless delivery systems, with packages being hung on door knobs or, in some big-city office and apartment blocks, placed in dedicated lockers installed by the companies. Face-to-face interaction with waimai xiaoge, once a near-daily feature of city life, ceased. It may never be fully restored.

这种挫败感可能会加剧。疫情期间,外卖公司推出了免接触配送系统,把食物杂货挂在门把手上,或者放在它们在一些大城市的办公室和公寓楼群中安装的专用储物柜里。与外卖小哥面对面互动曾经几乎已是城市生活的日常,如今戛然而止。它可能永远不会完全恢复了。

Food delivery allows migrant workers to choose their own work hours, but the stress is still immense. Many riders are hired by middlemen who impose tough requirements for the job. The pressure is evident: heavily burdened delivery people often run the final distance to drop-off points. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, a pro-democracy labour group, describes gig workers as an “immense army of precariats”.

送外卖让外来务工者可以自行选择工作时间,但压力仍然巨大。许多骑手通过中介受雇,而后者对这项工作提出了苛刻的要求。压力是显而易见的:负担沉重的外卖、快递人员通常要负责前往卸货点的最后一段路程。泛民派劳工组织香港职工会联盟(HKCTU)将零工工人描述为“庞大的不稳定无产者”。

经济学人双语版-看得见,听得到 Visible and vocal

Among the army’s recruits is a lanky 22-year-old in a baggy Ele.me jacket who prefers to be identified only by his surname, Liu. He says that, in his distant home-town near the eastern city of Suqian, he would need to “work as long as the machines” in order to earn as much as he does in Shanghai. He now puts aside 5,000 yuan a month. But he works six days a week, ten hours a day, even in the grimmest weather. Mr Liu says he jumps red lights every day to avoid late-delivery penalties. In the first half of 2019, Shanghai recorded 12 road accidents a week involving food-delivery riders. Many go unreported.

这支大军中有一个22岁的瘦高个,套着肥大的饿了么夹克。他希望记者只写他姓刘。他说,在东部城市宿迁附近的远方老家,他得“像机器那样连轴转”才能赚到和在上海一样多的钱。现在,他每个月攒下5000块。但他每周工作六天,每天工作十小时,即使最恶劣的天气也不例外。小刘说,自己每天都会闯红灯,以免送餐晚了被罚钱。2019年上半年,上海每周录得12起涉及外卖员的道路交通事故。许多事故未上报。

Over the years, factory workers have used their collective power to press for better pay and conditions. It is harder for dispersed delivery workers to do this, says Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin (CLB), an NGO in Hong Kong. If some riders go on strike, algorithms can redirect orders to others still working.

多年来,工厂工人运用他们的集体力量来争取更好的工资水平和工作条件。分散的外卖、快递人员更难做到这一点,香港非政府组织中国劳工通讯(CLB)的杰弗里·克洛索(Geoffrey Crothall)指出。如果一些骑手罢工,算法可以将订单重新派给其他还在工作的骑手。

Still, riders use social media to their advantage. They have large chat groups on messaging services such as WeChat and QQ, in which they discuss delivery routes but also employment terms and grievances. Meituan says that two in five of its riders were recommended for the job by home-town friends—recreating, to some extent, the solidarity of the factory. Mr Liu has found a WeChat group filled only with riders from his town. Delivery workers also forge bonds when they congregate, as they often do in areas with good internet connections or near busy food courts.

尽管如此,骑手们也会利用社交媒体帮助自己。他们在微信和QQ等通讯服务上建有大型聊天群,在里头交流递送路线,也讨论雇佣条款和不满。美团称旗下骑手有五分之二是因为同乡推荐而干上这份工作,这在一定程度上重塑了工厂里那种团结。小刘找到了一个微信群,里面全都是他跑外卖的老乡。外卖、快递人员还会在他们经常碰面的地方结识互动,比如网络连接良好的地方或繁忙的美食广场附近。

Such networking enables them to co-ordinate strikes. CLB says the food-delivery industry has become “a major source of worker unrest” (see chart). The NGO recorded the first strike by waimai xiaoge in 2016. The tally is now 121. Protests have been about wage arrears, pay cuts and fines.

这样的社交让他们能够协调罢工活动。CLB说,外卖行业已成为“工人骚动的主要源头”(见图表)。根据该组织的记录,外卖小哥们在2016年举行了第一次罢工。至今共121次。抗议活动涉及欠薪、减薪和罚钱。

经济学人双语版-看得见,听得到 Visible and vocal

Because workers are not formal employees, companies can usually ignore their complaints. In 2018 a rider was banned from Ele.me’s platform for going on strike for two days about low wages. Still, the two biggest firms know well the public’s sympathy for takeaway riders, who formed one section of a national-day parade through Tiananmen Square in October. They would also rather avoid lots of churn in their workforce.

因为这些工人不是正式雇员,公司通常可以对他们的不满置之不理。2018年,一名骑手因不满配送费太低罢送了两天,结果被饿了么平台封号。不过,两家最大的公司也很清楚公众对外卖骑手的同情——去年10月天安门广场国庆阅兵仪式中,外卖骑手是游行方队之一。此外,公司也要避免员工流动太过频繁。

To boost loyalty, Meituan has created a category call lepao, or happy runners, who get paid more for accepting orders in faraway places. It has also helped set up a mental-health hotline for delivery workers. During the epidemic the firm has offered free online counselling to riders. It will pay up to 300,000 yuan in medical fees to those with covid-19.

为提高员工忠诚度,美团推出了一个新的服务队伍“乐跑”,那些愿意派送远距离订单的人能拿到更高的报酬。它还协助建立了一条派送员心理健康热线。疫情期间这家公司为骑手提供了免费在线咨询。它将为患新冠肺炎的员工支付最高30万元的医疗费。

In the long run, riders are unlikely to be satisfied. Pun Ngai of the University of Hong Kong says they risk becoming “trapped in the middle”—unable to move forward in urban life and unwilling to retreat to a rural one. Asked, pre-covid, why he had recently travelled 1,700km from his home in the western province of Gansu to Shanghai, a newly arrived waimai xiaoge replied, beaming: “Everyone likes a big city.” He paused. “But you can’t do this for ever. You need to do something that gives you a way up.” Contacted recently, he said he had quit. “Too tiring,” he grumbled. ■

从长远看,骑手们不太可能感到满意。香港大学的潘毅表示,他们有“被卡在中间”的风险——既无法在城市生活中前进,也不愿退回到农村。疫情爆发前,一位初来乍到的外卖小哥被问到为何从甘肃老家来到1700公里外的上海,他笑答:“谁都喜欢大城市。”顿了下,他又说,“但也不能永远做这个。还得干一些有出路的事。”最近问他,他说已经辞职了。“太累了。”他叹道。■