An Assembly Line in the Head? Choices and Experiences of China’s Rural Migrant Workers in the Gig Economy

Project: Research project

Project Details


The rise of the gig economy has created a labor market characterized by a prevalence of freelance work, such as food delivery and ride-hailing. Proponents claim that gig jobs bring the masses flexibility and autonomy. Critics see it as a new form of capitalist exploitation, causing severer alienation and control. Despite propagating the experience of “being your own boss”, this highly contentious form of work has profound implications for the wellbeing and life prospects of gig workers, including the erasure of work-life boundaries and new forms of safety risks and social isolation. In China, emerging gig platforms have drawn many rural migrant workers out of working at factories and construction sites, enabling surplus rural laborers to participate in the urban labor market in a new way. Migrant gig workers have flexible work hours and more extensive spatial and social engagement in the city than traditional industrial workers. Yet, gig workers are subject to pervasive surveillance and controls by platform-based algorithms, leading to distinct and even hazardous practices. Questions including how the labor market of the gig economy drives new migration patterns and family split arrangements, how gig jobs create new options and constraints in the city and how migrant gig workers respond to algorithmic control to harness and/or fall victim to the new techno-economic system remain underresearched.

This study uses mixed methods to unpack the tension between gig platforms’ algorithmic control and Chinese rural migrant workers’ negotiation for choice and autonomy. Questionnaire survey data will be analyzed in a comparative framework to contrast the conditions and experiences of gig workers with those of regular workers in terms of migration, family arrangements, daily practices, and life prospects. Participant observation, focus groups and interviews will be used to unravel how migrant workers engage with the gig economy and are subject to its unconventional form of surveillance and control. From the context where gig platforms have prevailed with little regulatory oversight, the analysis will contribute to theory building on how platform-based algorithmic control affects work and life. It will also update knowledge on the contemporary conditions of China’s rural migrant workers. Our findings will inform policies to facilitate techno-economic innovations and to prevent safety hazards and negative social impacts. The study will also generate data for international comparative analysis on the effects of platform capitalism on the workforce structure and employment and labor conditions in the twenty-first century.
Effective start/end date1/01/23 → …


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