After spending more than two weeks demanding a payment of 5,000 Chinese yuan ($770), 48-year-old delivery driver Liu Jin was getting desperate.
On the morning of January 11, Liu went to the office of his employer, doused himself in gasoline and set himself alight to protest the unpaid wages.
Local authorities in Taizhou, Jiangsu province are now investigating the case, after Liu’s self-immolation attempt caused another wave of public outrage over the treatment of the millions of delivery workers in China.
A series of accidents and deaths this year involving tech company employees, both blue- and white-collar workers, have led to growing discontent over the toxic working culture in China’s tech industry, which has produced billionaires and eye-popping stock offerings.
Donned in yellow or blue uniforms, the scooter drivers ubiquitous in Chinese cities are the building blocks of the food delivery networks that allow people to get their food with a tap on their smartphones.
But the workers themselves have long suffered from heavy workload, tight deadlines and flawed algorithms that force them to break traffic rules and risk their lives rushing between restaurants and consumers.
They typically make about one US dollar to deliver every order, and less if they fail to meet the time limits determined by algorithms.
China’s two dominant food delivery companies, Meituan and Alibaba-owned Ele.me, employ drivers through third-party contractors, so they are not directly responsible for the welfare and safety of the massive teams.
Liu, a former construction worker from the less developed southwestern China, had been delivering meals for Ele.me in the eastern city of Taizhou.
According to a report by the Beijing Youth Daily, he found $770 was deducted from his wages in late December, after he quit the job to work for the rival app Meituan. He then protested to his former team leader and the employment agency, but failed to get the money.
His younger sister told the newspaper that Liu is the breadwinner of a family of four. When she visited Liu in hospital after his self-immolation attempt, Liu told her “I have lived enough, I’m so tired.”
The government says Liu is now in a stable condition. An investigative team has been assembled to look into the labor dispute, the official statement says.
Ele.me said in a statement on Monday it had paid Liu’s medical bills, and promised to penalize the contractor if an investigation confirms it had been withholding wages.
Traffic accidents and overwork deaths involving delivery couriers have also raised concerns in countries like South Korea and Australia, as the workers struggle to meet surging demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In China, lax enforcement of labor laws and a ban on independent unions have made it harder for workers to fight for better welfare, according to labor activists.
Last month, a 43-year-old worker in Beijing died when he was delivering meals for Ele.me. His family questioned why his insurance policy came with only $4,600 in compensation.
Ele.me later offered his family $92,500, and said it would raise the compensation for other families of delivery workers who die on the job.
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