Independent Contracting and Migrant Workers in China’s Digital Economy

Activity: Talk or presentationOral presentation


Capital (whether in the liquid form of money or consumer products like an iPhone) has to move or circulate to contribute to the underlying process of capital accumulation. In this profit driven process, mobility and logistics infrastructure are essential. Drawing on fieldwork in Beijing, the author finds that delivery apps recruit and (mis)classify workers as independent contractors, not employees. Through this sleight of hand, digital platform-mediated couriers, also known as “gig economy” workers, are not provided with employment contracts or any social insurance benefits. Managerial tools for tracking a commodity online present an abstract geography: package has shipped; out for delivery; expected to arrive today. They give the illusion of smoothness behind high speed. Likewise, “scientific” supply-chain management methods and modern transportation studies commonly ignore “lived” needs like workers’ need for rest or the diversification of their bodily movements to reduce the stress of repetitive motions. Environmental obstacles or other unexpected circumstances such as supply inconsistencies, traffic congestion and extreme weather are often not comprehensively evaluated in the work process, which contributes to the systemic underestimation of the time needed for delivery services to the benefit of employers. Migrant informal workers are thus doubly trapped in non-standard employment relations and an unequal citizenship regime segmented by rural/urban household registration status. This ongoing project will contribute to the growing debates of labor informality, migration and social exclusion, and the role of the Chinese state in employment protections.
Period8 Jan 2022
Held atThe Hong Kong Sociological Association, Hong Kong
Degree of RecognitionLocal


  • Independent contracting
  • Self-employment
  • Logistics labor
  • Alibaba
  • E-commerce
  • China
  • Law