China’s gig workers becoming new normal, but ‘inevitable trend’ comes with a burden

 


Over the past five years, Shao Zhen has mostly been a gig worker, making a living from various temporary jobs including as a vlogger sharing his home decoration experience and a loudspeaker manufacturer and seller.

Before that, the 43-year-old from eastern China’s Zhejiang province had taken up several full-time contracts, including working in a bank and in a computer store, but quit after being “fed up with all the boredom and low pay”.


“In a sense I work gig jobs at my own instigation, but I may also say it’s a forced option because I can’t find satisfactory formal employment,” he said.

Shao is among a growing number who are embracing flexible work amid the rise of the digital economy and growing competition for formal job opportunities as growth of the world’s second-largest economy slows.


In China, the most common forms of gig workers include freelancers, food delivery riders, live-streaming broadcasters and ride-hailing drivers.

Flexible employment is now in every industry and every field, becoming a new normal of the labour market
Bao Chunlei, Chinese Academy of Labour and Social Security

The number of gig workers stood at around 200 million over the past three years, representing about 23 per cent of China’s working population, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.

With businesses cutting jobs amid a bumpy post-pandemic recovery and record numbers of fresh college graduates entering the job market each year, authorities are increasingly promoting gig work to bolster employment, which Beijing sees as a foundation for social stability and consumer confidence.

Officially tagged as “flexible employment”, gig work is not bound by formal employment contracts and includes part-time and temporary jobs.

“Flexible employment is now in every industry and every field, becoming a new normal of the labour market … it’s played a role as ‘the new engine’ for employment,” said Bao Chunlei, a researcher from the state-backed Chinese Academy of Labour and Social Security think tank in an article in April.

According to leading recruitment agency Zhaopin in May, 19.1 per cent of college graduates in 2024 chose to be “slowly employed”, while 13.7 per cent opted to be “flexibly employed”.

“Slowly employed” is a popular phrase for staying unemployed or continuing with academic study.
In comparison, a similar survey last year showed the proportions were 18.9 per cent and 13.2 per cent, respectively, the report said.

The trend is growing against the backdrop of an enlarging gig economy globally.

In the United States, a record 64 million people – accounting for a third of its workers – turned to freelance jobs last year, mostly providing knowledge services or working as social media influencers, according to a survey by recruitment firm Upwork.

The trend is also happening as better educated people become more comfortable with flexible work – which in the past mainly referred to odd jobs taken by migrant workers – as new economic formats and forms of employment emerge.

About three quarters of over 2,000 college graduates surveyed in China in 2022 said they were willing or had clear plans to embrace gig work, according to a research paper published in the January issue of “China University Students Career Guide”, a monthly journal under the Ministry of Education.

“College students are increasingly paying attention to and favouring flexible employment, which has become an important social phenomenon that we must face up to and confront,” it said.

Graduates who had adopted flexible employment were distributed in a range of industries, including mobile internet, the service industry, finance, computing and gaming, the study found.

“This is inseparable from the active platform economy in China in recent years,” it said, suggesting authorities should “actively guide college students into flexible employment” as they struggle to create jobs for young people.

Beijing has rolled out a slew of measures to support gig workers in the past few years, including an instruction issued in December to standardise the 6,900 gig job markets.

Li Yunze, director of the National Administration of Financial Regulation, vowed to offer tailor-made insurance products for flexible workers, including delivery workers and ride-hailing drivers, at the Lujiazui Forum in Shanghai last month.

However, the influx of unemployed individuals has led to a surplus in the ride-hailing industry and a decline in drivers’ earnings.

From September to May, the number of online ride-hailing cars in Guangzhou increased by 24.4 per cent to 121,200, while registered drivers rose by 9,400, the Guangzhou Municipal Transportation Bureau said in July.

During this period, the average number of daily orders for ride-hailing drivers dropped from 14.21 to 12.22, while their average daily revenue fell by 9.2 per cent to 311.63 yuan (US$42.9)

According to the Guangzhou Daily, drivers, even without taking any rest days for an entire month, earned no more than 10,000 yuan per month before deducting vehicle costs.

And while the gig economy is an “inevitable trend”, there are still plenty of issues to tackle as it grows, added Bao.

“The nature of being flexibly employed has led to a series of issues including unclear definitions, incomplete statistics, difficulty in labour rights’ protection and implementation of supportive measures,” he wrote in his article.

For Shao, the biggest disadvantage of freelancing is relatively poor social security, as he needs to pay a large sum every month if he wants to have similar benefits as an average employee.

“I hope the government can share more of this burden in the future,” he added.

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