4. 27. 2022
Logistics Workers’ Strikes and Social Reproduction in China
Ian Liujia Tian
In 2018, tens of thousands of truck drivers went on strike across seven provinces in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The strikes’ main trigger was a new policy adopted by “truck-hailing” apps such as Huocheban, Lalamove, and Yunmanman that would extract increased commissions from each delivery. But the truck drivers’ demands extended beyond that immediate concern: drivers also protested rising gasoline prices, low delivery fees, and police harassment on the highways. Existing analyses of the reasons for and outcomes of these strikes have tended to emphasize the fraternal bond among truck drivers that helped initiate the unrest – an understandable approach, considering the trucking industry is male-dominated. Nevertheless, this is only half the story. Truck drivers’ wives, or Kasao 卡嫂, are also central to the way that logistics workers in China produce value for capitalists. By examining the role of these women on the road and in strikes, we can glimpse how the work of sustaining and reproducing labourers’ lives exists as a vital parallel to – and an important precondition for – logistics infrastructures.
Logistics, Strikes, and the Gig Economy
Highways are one of the major types of infrastructure in China. With the beginning of economic reform in China in the 1980s, expressway construction became a high priority for provincial and municipal governments in the coastal and southern parts of the country. By the end of 2017, China’s highway network extended to 481.39 million kilometres, with 50.15 kilometres of roads for every 100 square kilometres of land. Freight volume in China also reached unprecedented levels in 2017, with 368 billion tons of goods transported across highways. Beneath these logistical data is the cognitive, communicative, and physical labour of thirty million drivers. Drivers enter the profession because of the mobility it promises, conditions of work enabled by commercial capital’s demand for flexible labour. Most drivers (75%) are self-employed workers who have bought their trucks and pick up delivery jobs on apps such as Lalamove. Those who are employees of logistics companies have a greater degree of job stability, but their employment benefits and experiences on the job can differ drastically depending on the size of the employer.
It was within these structural contexts that the 2018 strikes took place. While the strikes’ initial spark was drivers’ dissatisfaction with how logistics apps operate, those workers realized that to address their dissatisfactions adequately would require challenging a broader range of exploitative relations.
The strikes exposed the exploitative nature of the gig economy in China; it also disclosed possibilities for resistance to it. Like delivery workers elsewhere, most drivers in China are independent contractors whose flexibility is useful – value-producing – for the companies that control logistics apps. A driver competes by trying to offer the lowest per-delivery rate, no matter how much the delivery costs them in gasoline. At the same time, drivers are able to tap into the labour-organizing potentials of digital technologies: coordinating on online platforms such as Kayoudidai 卡友地帶 (Truck Driver’s Realm), in 2018 they succeeded in halting for days the circulation of commodities in provinces important to China’s logistics networks. Kayoudidai is usually a forum for drivers’ mutual aid on the road, helping to source support when they run out of gas, for example, or when they’re involved in road accidents. During the 2018 surge of labour struggle, calls for solidarity and strike coordination populated the forum.
The truck drivers’ strike action demonstrated their ability to self-organize. It echoed similar movements in Brazil and Iran in 2018, also motivated partially by increasing gasoline prices. We are witnessing the increasing precarity of platform workers within the global logistics industry, but also the increasing power these workers can exercise. Their efforts to unionize and determine their working conditions highlight the importance of circulation, not just production, as the realm of socialist politics.
By the end of 2019, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) – the Chinese state’s sole legal trade-union organization, led in part by the Chinese Communist Party – had announced several measures to unionize truck drivers. While some commentators have been critical of this move by the government, many truck drivers welcomed it. The ACFTU was able to meet many of their demands, such as better regulation of delivery apps, since drivers’ organizing had aimed at improved working conditions rather than a more fundamental transformation of commodity circulation. But even if anti-capitalist activists’ desires and trucker drivers’ demands may not always be the same, drivers’ strikes nonetheless hint at the revolutionary potential of organizing in the logistics sector.
Those strike efforts also illuminate the precarity of gig economy workers who lack adequate support from employers or governments, raising an important question: who is taking care of China’s truck drivers when the state and capital look away? Who helps them survive the violent effects of contemporary logistics capitalism (evoked by critical geography scholar Deborah Cowen, among others)? Put in another way, what can we see and say about life-making in these deadly moments of globalized commodity chains? And what possibilities exist for organizing the life-makers?
Kasao’s livestreamed life-making
Kasao 卡嫂, truck drivers’ wives, take up social-reproductive labour on the road: travelling with their husbands, cooking for them, helping them load cargo, and staying awake at night to guard the trucks. They also livestream their journeys on social media platforms such as Kuaishou, generating extra income for themselves and their spouses. Their existence in a world dominated by men deserves attention. Not only are they sustaining the lives of their husbands, which indirectly contributes to the movements of goods on the road, but they are also participating in the logistics economy as integral, unremunerated workers.
In a report published in 2018, Ma Dan, a researcher from Beijing Normal University, analyzed the results of an online survey of 228 Kasao. Her findings suggest that four out of ten Kasao accompany their husbands on their drives, away from home for months. For those who stay at home, their responsibilities include working at other paid jobs, as well as child and senior care.
The way that logistics labour is organized determines the pattern of the social reproduction labour that supports it, shaping Kasao subjectivities in the process. For instance, in an interview conducted by a radio station called Story FM, a Kasao called Sister Gao downplays her labour on the road, instead praising her husband who must sit and focus behind the wheel for hours. But as much as Kasao might tend to dismiss their own work’s importance, their gendered labour contributes significantly to logistics capitalism by sustaining the cognitive, communicative, and physical abilities of the workers who operate trucks. The current form of logistics capitalism in China – and also globally, given China’s key place in the world economy – relies on Kasao life-making abilities.
Kasao labour frequently deepens their attachments to heteronormative marriage, childbearing, and filial care – attachments that combine instrumental, emotional, and ethical elements. In the second episode of a documentary series called Dianpo Huoyun Lu (The Upheaval Road), we glimpse how the everyday lives of Kasao converge with patriarchal ideals of womanhood, and how these commitments support logistics capitalism. From performing femininity to chatting and cooking, everything the episode’s Kasao protagonist does facilitates the circulation of goods. That Kasao, called Sister Miao, finds meaning by performing the role of a mother and wife who provides complex forms of labour for her family.
During the 2018 truck drivers’ strikes, many Kasao stayed mostly in the background, supporting their husbands. But the relative invisibility of their labour behind the scenes belies their political impact. And on social media they have both visibility and substantial influence. On Kuaishou 快手, for instance, a video sharing app popular amongst the working class in China, I have tracked six Kasao who livestream what they do when they are on the move. Northeastern Sister Yin, who routinely livestreams her cooking, has 1.6 million followers. Netizens of Kuaishou are fascinated by her ability to manoeuvre in the small space in the back of the truck to make delicious noodles, stir-fry vegetables, and steamed buns. Yin is able to transform her social-reproductive labour into engaging experiences for her viewers, and potentially into extra money for herself and her husband (depending on the number of viewers, likes, and clicks). Just as important, her livestreams build popular support for truck drivers’ and Kasao struggles on the road.
Sister Rong from Qinghuandao, by contrast, does not livestream her social-reproductive labour, like cooking. Instead she records herself loading and unloading goods, checking the truck’s tires, and keeping watch at night – activities conventionally considered masculine. With 230,000 followers, Rong represents a stream of Kasao who wish to present themselves as capable of more than housework. Contributing to the same physically demanding labour performed by her husband, she ventures a form of femininity that challenges the mothering, nurturing role that Sister Yin embodies.
On Kuaishou, in addition to broadcasting their everyday labour, Kasao share their advice in short videos. They discuss their experiences navigating administrators of the logistics centres where goods are stored prior to delivery, or cleaning trucks, or spotting thieves who hunt for gasoline at night. By facilitating this kind of information exchange, livestream platforms constitute a potential site where Kasao can build relationships with each other – and organize.
The 2018 strikes demonstrated that online mutual aid forums like Kayoudidai could connect atomized truck drivers to take concerted political action. That precedent hints at the possibility of Kasao using livestreaming apps such as Kuaishou to similar effect, even if today Kasao livestreams are dedicated mainly to earning additional income and connecting with peers during lonely weeks on the road. Kasao might use their livestreams for coded communication, for example, during times of increased repression of strikes and protests in the Chinese state. In this way and and others, these underestimated, often invisibilized workers may yet emerge as a political force to be reckoned with.
Screenshots are from Sister Rong’s and Sister Yin’s livestreams on Kuaishou 快手, reproduced here with permission.
Ian Liujia Tian is a researcher and activist focusing on queer and feminist politics and culture in China, with a commitment to anti-capitalist politics.