18-20 August 2022

Independent Contractors, Migrant Households, and Cost Competitiveness in e-Commerce Logistics Chains in China

Jenny Chan

Abstract:Subcontracting, which companies use to avoid costly obligations otherwise required of direct, longer-term employment, is core to parcel delivery services in China. Alibaba, not unlike Amazon, has expanded its delivery network by investing in contingent subcontracted workers. The veil of workers’ independence, justified by their ownership of the vehicles they use to deliver, nonetheless provides them with little autonomy and exposes them to the uncertainties imposed by the market, oftentimes for little in return. This research analyzes labor informality and the coping strategies of working-class families in the parcel delivery sector. How do couriers, mostly male rural migrants, organize their work to adapt to speedups of production and circulation? In what ways households are adapted to enabling flexible employment in China’s platform economy?

Drawing on three rounds of participant observation at a parcel delivery station in Beijing from 2017 to 2018, supplemented by analysis of company and government documents, this ongoing project discusses how individual and family lives are impacted by the hectic world of work, and indeed, how courier services depend on the exploitation of households through flexibilization to improve their cost competitiveness. Married couriers rely heavily on their wives and/or parents for childcare and other housework while working hard to provide their families with the main source of income. Family arrangements like these often see fathers become minimally available to their families, even as their families work to ensure the fathers’ availability to work. The intersecting structures of these arrangements have ensured the daily reproduction of workers for employers’ benefit. Household members call customers or wrap parcels, for example, and their unpaid labor subsidizes delivery stations in their business operation. In this way, the “independence” of subcontracting allows employers to intensify production requirements and drive exploitation into forms hidden within the household.


logistics labor, courier services, cost competitiveness, independent contractors, migrant working-class households, China


This research project is funded by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and the East and Inner Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS EIAC Grant: #1171163) and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (Ref No.: P0042704).


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