Monday, March 4, 2024

In China, women delivery riders grapple with ‘sex work’ label, other stereotypes

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Life isn’t easy for the approximately 1 million women working as takeaway delivery riders in China. Though their numbers appear to be rising as delivering food is convenient for fitting around childcare or retraining for new careers, these women have to live with gender pay gaps and various other inequities.

These include juggling the workload with their families, sexual harassment and even violence, which might explain why they tend not to stay in the industry as long as men.

A group of social media influencers greatly increased the pressure on female riders last November by posting a series of memes that falsely eroticised them. Various videos and photos showed fake riders wearing the distinctive black and yellow uniforms used by leading delivery app Meituan, but modified with stockings, short skirts and high heels.

They were also shown with food menus containing much higher prices than usual, implying that women who deliver food to people’s houses are also available as sex workers.

This content spread rapidly on Chinese social media, attracting widespread attention. It’s all a world away from the realities of being a female takeaway rider, and has caused a major row that has highlighted wider challenges for women working in China and elsewhere.

Female riders and sexual connotations

China is easily the biggest market for food delivery apps worldwide. Female riders make up around 10% of the workforce, and have always had to endure linguistic anomalies that have inadvertently differentiated and sexualised them.

In Chinese, the term “delivery brothers” is commonly used to describe riders across the takeaway industry. This indicates respectability and diligence, while also implying that this is a job for men.

At the same time, a colloquialism used in an online transaction with a sex worker would be to order a “miss delivery”, that is, someone who works door-to-door. This has resulted in a tacit link between female riders and sex work in the popular consciousness. It helps to explain how the Meituan influencer posts gained traction so quickly.

The incident has added another layer of understanding to my own research into female riders in China (which is yet to be published). In interviews with around 20 of these women, they said that most people appreciate how hard they work, but they endure daily discrimination.

For example, they are more likely to be asked to help throw out rubbish after delivering food to a customer than their male counterparts. Some of the women had also experienced people staring at them in ways that felt unsettling, or asking questions with a pointed gender connotation.

Rumour, stereotypes and misunderstandings seem to have combined to stigmatise food delivery as an occupation for women. This is complicated by cultural factors in parts of Asia, where it is regarded as unsuitable or even shameful for women to take up jobs regarded as “men’s”. Some of my interviewees even told me that they would not tell their parents about their work.

Equally, many of the issues raised by this case go far beyond China. Women working in male-dominated occupations have long faced difficulties around stereotypes and harassment. This ranges from female employees being assigned to serve tea and welcome guests, to loaded comments about their appearance, to extreme cases in which the working environment is downright hostile to them.

Women’s work identities are also regularly connected to sex all over the world. Nurse or policewoman costumes are popular requests for strippergrams, for instance. Or in the porn industry, one favourite trope is the sexy secretary. Certainly there are some male equivalents, but these examples all reduce women’s professional identities to tools for sexual gratification.

Rider protection

In the case of the Chinese female riders, Meituan can take credit for responding by initiating legal action against four “fake riders”. The company accused them of spreading misleading content and of libellously claiming that food delivery was being used by their riders as cover for sex work.

As public criticism began mounting, the influencers apologised on social media platform Weibo, one of the biggest in China, which then deleted their accounts. It remains to be seen whether Meituan will continue pursuing the influencers or whether it will feel that they have been punished enough.

Either way, its intervention represents an important line in the sand to those denigrating takeaway riders, as well as hopefully making the public aware of the misrepresentation and the reality for women in this profession.

Also, however, it draws attention to the fact that delivery riders are not Meituan employees, but sign outsourced labour contracts with third-party firms. Chinese law requires companies to protect employees from harm, but this may not extend to those in the gig economy. Had this not been an issue of potential reputational damage for Meituan, it’s possible the female riders would have lacked employer protection, making them even more vulnerable.

It should be said that China’s regulators have been trying to crack down on malicious content. In January 2023 the Cyberspace Administration of China launched a one-month nationwide campaign aimed at clearing the internet of vulgarity, focusing on seven categories that included stigmatising specific groups.

Chinese regulators have also issued directives to control the creation of online characters and content, urging social media and short-video platforms to intensify their efforts to remove misleading memes. Yet the row over female riders indicates there is still a long way to go.

Being a female rider in a largely male occupation with crude stereotypes comes with a risk of violence and daily abuse. We just have to hope that the fake Meituan memes have not made this worse. These riders need better protection in their work and the regulators clearly need to further clamp down on online misrepresentation and abuse. Female delivery riders should be in exactly the same position as their male counterparts, and there’s a long way to go before that has been achieved.

Xiaohan Li is Doctoral Researcher, University of Southampton.

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