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Delay of 2 seconds – The Chinese way of doing business

In China, a protest is brewing against large supply companies that exploit their employees with the help of algorithms and the silence of the state.

A food supplier from southern China has publicly announced his disappointment with his employer. He uses the WeChat messaging service to spread his anger at the punishment he just received – automatically issued by a computer system.

Yes, you’ve heard right! The artificial intelligence software decides if you’ve broken the rules, or not.

The allegation reads as follows:

“Violation of the rule: late delivery, culprit: supplier, delay: two seconds”.

The provider then tries to explain to his employer via chat that he has just forgotten to press the “Delivered” button in the app. But the man at the other end of the chat couldn’t help him. 40 percent of the small fee the supplier had to receive for his work now disappears in the form of a fine.

If food suppliers start arguing with their Chinese employers, they could face heavy fines – for example, if customers leave a bad rating or if employees are allegedly violated rules that seem arbitrary. This happens very often in those corporations that are considered real technology companies in China and the rest of the world, but which generate their profits mainly due to cheap labor, writes in its analysis, the German Die Zeit.

This applies to operators of large delivery applications such as Meituan or Ele.me, which have real armies of suppliers in cities controlled by applications and algorithms. And in most cases, their employees feel exploited. For years, this system has grown rapidly and relatively undisturbed, but Chinese companies have recently faced serious challenges.

State regulation

Recently, the Chinese government has turned its attention to some of these internet companies and raised all kinds of accusations against them, like violations of antitrust laws, consumer protection, financial stability, and the exploitation of workers.

An extensive new plan to curb the algorithms behind technology platforms is being prepared by China as it intensifies its efforts to limit the influence of Internet giants.

The campaign, launched by China’s Cyberspace Administration, aims to create a comprehensive system for regulating the use of algorithms within three years. All of this is part of the government’s efforts to curb unscrupulous business practices and gain greater control over what is happening online.

In September, last year, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security summoned representatives of suppliers and taxi companies and asked them to pay their employees appropriately and guarantee them vacations. Even before the meeting, the market surveillance authority published guidelines according to which often unrealistically short delivery times should be changed.

Suppliers receive between 40 cents and 1.20 USD per delivery

Reports in the Chinese media have revealed how precarious the situation is. Anyone who drives food for an application operator stares at their mobile phone and automatically receives information about which order will enter as the next task. The application shows where the collection takes place and where the delivery destination is.

For many vendors, work is a stressful and dangerous order race in which they try to outsmart the algorithm – like in a computer game they have to win. In order to achieve their daily norm, they often have to work overtime. Trying not to risk any deductions or fines, many of them decide to break the rules of the road: ignore red traffic lights, drive on the roads in the wrong direction.

Millions of Chinese choose this way of working

According to Chinese media reports, about eight million suppliers work for the two largest food delivery platforms, Meituan and Ele.me, which have support from technology giants like Tencent and Alibaba. Most of these people have a secondary or low level of education and come from poorer, rural parts of China.

Bottom Line

Problems with low-paid, poorly regulated employment relationships exist everywhere. In fact, some of the claims of Chinese workers resemble those that have become more common in many other countries recently – poor working conditions, dismissals, lack of accident insurance, and others.

Without a doubt, ways must always be sought to improve productivity and better working conditions. The question is to what extent the use of software helps in some way to control those conditions and the observance of the rules during work.

What do you think? Drop us a line in the comment section below.

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