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Pots of gold await in China’s gig economy: how mobile technology is transforming the world’s biggest jobs market

Advances in mobile internet and e-payment services allows talent to be paid wherever and whenever, creating opportunities for 400 million people to be self-employed by 2036, according to AliResearch

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2017, 1:36pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 February, 2017, 11:39am

By most measures, Hai Zhenzhen has the perfect job.

The 21-year-old high school graduate works from home, answers to nobody, and pretty much can work whenever she wants.

Using a smartphone-based application called UpLive, she live streams videos of herself doing chores, singing or just chatting with people for two hours every weekday. Without needing to engage in pornography, phone sex or anything remotely risque, all that’s required of Hai is to look pretty on camera as she goes about her daily routine, all the while receiving digital gifts from a mostly male fan club.

The gifts, which range from digital bouquets of roses to strands of pearls, jewellery or even cars and yachts, can be converted into cash, of which she splits half the value with the platform that hosts her broadcasts.

While Hai declined to divulge her income, she’s earning enough to afford an apartment of 40 square metres (430 square feet) 15 minutes ride from Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, buy herself cosmetics and occasionally splurge on a new wardrobe, all for a 40-hour month.

The most popular hosts, as video streamers are called, can take home up to 100,000 yuan (US$14,537) a month on UpLive, said the platform’s co-founder Andy Tian. That’s 30 times the 3,378 yuan that an average college graduate earns in the first job in Beijing, according to a think tank.

Welcome to China’s gig economy.

Technology -- call it the uberisation of talent -- that connects the providers of skills with demand has upended China’s labour market.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in China, the world’s largest smartphone and internet market, where 713 million netizens within a rapidly growing economy homogenized by a common language compresses the time for these trends to take shape.

“With the rise of the service industry and online platforms, people can directly translate their time and skills into production power, and digital payment tools make it possible for them to get paid wherever and whenever they work,” said Hao Jian, chief consultant at China’s largest online recruiting firm Zhaopin.com in Beijing. “No need to work in cubicles, no need to work for the same old boss.”

Up to 400 million people in China may be self-employed members of the gig economy by 2036, according to AliResearch, the think tank affiliated with Alibaba Group Holdings, the world’s largest online shopping platform operator and owner of the South China Morning Post.

By comparison, three in 10 American workers -- or between 54 million and 68 million people -- earn some form of income through independent work and gigs, according to McKinsey Global Institute’s 2016 study.

The options are already aplenty in China.

Didi-Chuxing, the ride-hailing application that displaced Uber from China, has 15 million licensed drivers on its app, serving up 1.43 billion rides in 2015 to 300 million commuters across 400 cities. That’s 15 million car owners equipped with nothing more than a smartphone and a driver’s license earning additional income, after their working hours.

Xiaozhu, a Chinese version of Airbnb, earned 1.15 billion yuan last year from listing 140,000 properties on its platform for short leases.

Full-time chefs like Qin Zhanwen can now double his income by cooking the occasional banquet for idachu (愛大廚, or Love Chef in English), after clocking off from his day job. Even animal lovers can make extra money looking after pets in their neighbourhoods.

To capture this demand, Wen Shuang launched an app called Ziwork.com in late 2016 to help savvy businesses and professionals find work.

“China has the worlds’ largest group of professionals. With the development of mobile and social internet, the country will see the rise of the biggest professional freelancer market in the world,” he said.

Positioned as the Chinese version of UpWork and freelancer.com, Ziwork has 60,000 professionals registered on its site.

About 60 per cent of them have had five years’ working experience, while 70 per cent of them are full-time employees seeking a second assignment for extra pay.

For employers, part-time workers free them of costly benefits such as medical insurance, pension obligations and even year-end bonuses, tying remuneration strictly to getting the job done.

That’s a boon for employers with squeezed profit margins, as China’s economy trudges through its slowest growth pace in almost three decades.

Demand for part-time jobs almost doubled in 2016 from a year earlier, outpacing the 25 per cent growth for new full-time jobs, Zhaopin’s data shows.

The gig economy will expand participation by the labour force, provide opportunities for the unemployed and even boost productivity, McKinsey said.

For the tax man, this also means a loss of taxable, and traceable income. In Britain, the annual loss to government coffers is estimated at £4 billion, because people work gigs now, instead of full-time registered jobs.

But it creates new challenges for human resource managers, requiring additional thoughts on issues such as loyalty, confidentiality, competition and corporate culture.

“How to regulate and protect those involved in the gig economy brings new challenges for policymakers and the new intermediaries” that are capitalising on the growth, said Zhaopin’s Hao. “What if a gig worker serves two competing companies in the same industry? That’s something that needs to be grappled with.”

For UpLive’s Tian, live video streaming is taking Asia by storm, allowing him to expand his service to Taiwan, Malaysia, South Korea, Vietnam and even as far afield as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Male fans are so devoted that one of them in the UAE drove four hours across a desert to deliver US$5,000 to UpLive’s Dubai office to buy digital gifts for a video-streaming host, the service said.

For now, Hai is riding high on her digital fame, and grateful that she’s able to capitalise from the Chinese boom in the Internet of Things.

“I want to keep trying new things and live a life. Rather than being tied up to a full-time job, I myself, not any employers, should have the control of my time,” said Hai.