Rising Concern Over Working Conditions as China’s Gig Economy Booms

Liu Jin wanted his due — $733 in back pay.As a scooter driver in a blue uniform, Liu gigged for Ele.me, an online food delivery service owned by the Alibaba Group, a growing multibillion-dollar behemoth that dominates China’s e-commerce.On January 11, Liu showed up at Ele.me’s distribution center in Taizhou, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. Onlookers captured the scene on video, their footage displaying the Ele.me slogan “Instant Delivery, Beautiful Life” on a wall behind the man engulfed in flames.A video of the incident went viral on Weibo, China’s social media platform, as the 48-year-old worker was being treated for third-degree burns.Liu’s protest in China’s eastern Jiangsu province came not long after a 43-year-old scooter driver referred to only as Han died while delivering meals in Beijing. Han also worked for Ele.me. The company’s insurance paid $4,600 in compensation to his wife, parents and two children.When his family spoke out, the company offered $92,500. A woman wearing a face mask rides an electric bicycle with her groceries past delivery workers of Meituan and Ele.me, in Beijing, China, July 13, 2020.The incidents cast a spotlight on the working condition for China’s gig economy workers.“This shows the helplessness of an ordinary workers,” said one commentator on Weibo.“Now that the society is ‘ruled by law,’ the capitalists are not afraid of anything,” said another.According to a 2020 Drivers of the food delivery service Ele.me attend a morning briefing before an internal security check in Beijing, China, Sept. 21, 2017.Li Qiang, director of the New York based rights group China Labor Watch,  said that the gig economy workers have to pay a huge price to defend their rights through legal channels.”Fighting through legal channels doesn’t guarantee you can get your salary back, and it’s extremely time consuming. So for most workers, they will choose to be quiet and quickly get another job,” said Li.He added that labor unions in China need to be more effective to ensure proper enforcement of labor laws. He also pointed out when enforcing the law, local government authorities favor businesses over workers because companies are considered useful for creating job opportunities and maintaining social stability.If workers protest, “they might be arrested and imprisoned for crimes such as ‘disrupting social order’ or ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble,’ ” Li continued.Although China recognized flexible and informal employment in 2001 in the tenth Five-Year Plan, Beijing has yet to implement real structural changes and protection for gig economy workers.On January 20, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee received a draft regulation for review. According to the draft, workers, including those with flexible employments, can apply for legal aid to help solve disputes over work-related accidents such as traffic accidents, food and drug safety accidents, medical accidents and personal damages. Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer, said the new regulation, if passed, will offer some help to those at the bottom of the society. But in China, he cautioned such regulation will have limited effect because of the centralized, authoritarian system.“In many cases, it is not just a lack of legal service or legal consultation, but also the corruption in the entire legal channel,” he said. “The legal system in China is opaque and laws can be difficult to enforce, so the actual effect of legal aid will be limited.”Lin Yang contributed to this report which originated on VOA Mandarin.  

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Biden: US Buying 200 Million More COVID-19 Vaccine Doses

President Joe Biden said Tuesday the United States was buying 200 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccine to inoculate nearly the entire U.S. population of 300 million people by early fall. The U.S. has purchased 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 100 million of the Moderna vaccine. They will be delivered by the end of summer or early fall, Biden said. With this latest order, the U.S. will have purchased 600 million doses. “Not in hand yet, but ordered,” Biden said. “We expect these additional 200 million doses to be delivered this summer.” People wait in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Oklahoma City, Jan. 26, 2021.The administration also announced it will be increasing delivery of available vaccines to states for the next three weeks to ramp up vaccination rates. Biden said the administration was increasing doses to states from 8.6 million a week to 10.1 million next week. Biden also promised to provide states with firm vaccine allocation advisories three weeks ahead of delivery, which should allow state officials to more accurately plan for injections. There are more than 100 million confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and more than 2.1 million deaths. The U.S. accounts for nearly a quarter of the cases, at nearly 25.5 million, and has recorded 424,690 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center statistics on Tuesday. A woman is vaccinated inside her vehicle at a mass COVID-19 vaccination site outside The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., Jan. 26, 2021.Biden, who was sworn into office a week ago, pledged to provide 100 million COVID-19 vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office. He said during a news conference Tuesday that ending the pandemic would require a “war-time effort.” “More than 400,000 Americans have already died,” he said. “This is a war-time undertaking. It’s not hyperbole.” Harris vaccinatedAlso Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris received the second dose of her COVID-19 vaccine. Both Harris and Biden received their vaccinations on live television to help allay fears about the vaccine. Biden received his second dose before his swearing-in last week. Vice President Kamala Harris reacts after receiving her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md., Jan. 26, 2021.Pharmacist to plead guiltySteven Brandenburg, a Wisconsin pharmacist accused of trying to spoil dozens of vials of COVID-19 vaccine, has agreed to plead guilty in federal court. Brandenburg, 46, is charged with two counts of attempting to tamper with consumer products. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 10 years and a $250,000 fine on each count. Brandenburg was arrested December 31 after police investigated 57 vials — enough to inoculate more than 500 people — of the Moderna vaccine that had been left outside a refrigerator at a hospital in a Milwaukee suburb. Jason Baltz, Brandenburg’s attorney, declined to comment Tuesday to The Associated Press. 
 

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US Senate Confirms Biden Nominee as Secretary of State

The U.S. Senate confirmed President Joe Biden’s nominee Antony Blinken to lead the U.S. State Department on Tuesday. As VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson reports, Blinken faces numerous challenges worldwide as the nation’s top diplomat.
Camera: Adam Greenbaum   Produced by: Katherine Gypson
 

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Biden, Putin Hold First Phone Discussions

For the first time since his inauguration, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke Tuesday with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, expressing concerns about the arrest of dissident Alexei Navalny, Moscow’s cyber-espionage campaign and bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, two senior Biden administration officials said.Biden’s stance appeared to mark another sharp break with that of former President Donald Trump, who often voiced delight at his warm relations with the Kremlin leader. At the same time, according to U.S. accounts of the call, Biden told Putin that Russia and the United States should complete a five-year extension of their nuclear arms control treaty before it expires in early February.There was no immediate readout of the call from Moscow, but Russia reached out to Biden in the first days of his four-year term in the White House. The U.S. leader agreed but only after he had prepared with his staff and had a chance for phone calls with three close Western allies of the U.S. — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.People gather in Pushkin Square during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Jan. 23, 2021. Russian police arrested hundreds of protesters.It was not immediately known how Putin responded to Biden raising contentious issues between the two countries.Biden told reporters Monday that despite disagreements with Moscow, “I find that we can both operate in the mutual self-interest of our countries as a New START agreement and make it clear to Russia that we are very concerned about their behavior, whether it’s Navalny, whether it’s SolarWinds or reports of bounties on heads of Americans in Afghanistan.”Shortly before his call with Putin, Biden spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, reassuring him of the United States’s commitment to the West’s post-World War II military pact that was formed as an alliance against the threat of Russian aggression.During his White House tenure, Trump often quarreled with NATO allies, complaining they were not contributing enough money for their mutual defense.FILE – U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the beginning of a their bilateral meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018.The former president was often deferential to Putin, rejecting claims in the U.S. from opposition Democrats that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help him win — a years-long saga that Trump derisively dismissed as “the Russia hoax.”Last year, Trump also questioned whether Russia was involved in the hack of software manufactured by the U.S. company SolarWinds that breached files at the departments of Commerce, Treasury and Energy.Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Russia was “pretty clearly” behind the cyberattack, but Trump claimed the attack was being overplayed by the U.S. media and that perhaps China was responsible.Before taking office, Biden said, “I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation.”Trump had also dismissed claims that Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, another issue Biden pressed Putin on.Despite his conciliatory approach to Russia, Trump imposed sanctions on the country, Russian companies and business leaders over various issues, including Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine and attacks on dissidents.The Biden-Putin call followed pro-Navalny protests in more than 100 Russian cities last weekend, with more than 3,700 people arrested across Russia.Navalny is an anti-corruption campaigner and Putin’s fiercest critic. He was arrested January 17 as he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering for nearly five months after a nerve-agent poisoning he claims was carried out by Russian agents, an accusation the Kremlin has rejected. 

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Biden Orders End of Federally Run Private Prisons

President Joe Biden ordered the Department of Justice on Tuesday to end its reliance on private prisons and acknowledge the central role government has played in implementing discriminatory housing policies.In remarks before signing the order, Biden said the U.S. government needs to change “its whole approach” on the issue of racial equity. He added that the nation is less prosperous and secure because of the scourge of systemic racism.”We must change now,” the president said. “I know it’s going to take time, but I know we can do it. And I firmly believe the nation is ready to change. But government has to change as well.”Biden rose to the presidency during a year of intense reckoning on institutional racism in the U.S. The moves announced on Tuesday reflect his efforts to follow through with campaign pledges to combat racial injustice. Housing policiesBeyond calling on the Justice Department to curb the use of private prisons and address housing discrimination, the new orders will recommit the federal government to respect tribal sovereignty and disavow discrimination against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community over the coronavirus pandemic.Biden directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a memorandum to take steps to promote equitable housing policy. The memorandum calls for HUD to examine the effects of Trump regulatory actions that may have undermined fair housing policies and laws.Months before the November election, the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era rule that required communities that wanted to receive HUD funding to document and report patterns of racial bias.Stop ‘profiting off of incarceration’The order to end the reliance on privately-run prisons directs the attorney general not to renew Justice Department contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities. The move will effectively revert the Justice Department to the same posture it held at the end of the Obama administration.”This is a first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration,” Biden said.The more than 14,000 federal inmates housed at privately-managed facilities represent a small fraction of the nearly 152,000 federal inmates currently incarcerated.The federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had already opted not to renew some private prison contracts in recent months as the number of inmates dwindled and thousands were released to home confinement because of the coronavirus pandemic. Criticism of Biden moveGEO Group, a private company that operates federal prisons, called the Biden order “a solution in search of a problem.””Given the steps the BOP had already announced, today’s Executive Order merely represents a political statement, which could carry serious negative unintended consequences, including the loss of hundreds of jobs and negative economic impact for the communities where our facilities are located, which are already struggling economically due to the COVID pandemic,” a GEO Group spokesperson said in a statement.David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, noted that the order does not end the federal government’s reliance on privately-run immigration detention centers.”The order signed today is an important first step toward acknowledging the harm that has been caused and taking actions to repair it, but President Biden has an obligation to do more, especially given his history and promises,” Fathi said.The memorandum highlighting xenophobia against Asian Americans is in large part a reaction to what White House officials say was offensive and dangerous rhetoric from the Trump administration. Trump, throughout the pandemic, repeatedly used xenophobic language in public comments when referring to the coronavirus.This memorandum will direct Health and Human Services officials to consider issuing guidance describing best practices to advance cultural competency and sensitivity toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the federal government’s COVID-19 response. It also directs the Justice Department to partner with AAPI communities to prevent hate crimes and harassment. 
 

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On the Brink of Extinction, the Northern White Rhino Now Has a Chance at Survival 

The northern white rhino is on the brink of extinction.  Poachers decimated the population, but now science has a chance to bring it back.  VOA’s Arash Arabasadi reports.Camera:  Reuters Produced by: Arash Arabasadi  

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European Leaders See Promise on Digital Tax

The U.S. Senate’s confirmation of U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has raised hope on the other side of the Atlantic. Yellen said the U.S. administration remains committed to working to resolve digital taxation disputes, a remark that Europeans are reading optimistically.In this file photo taken on Dec. 1, 2020, Janet Yellen speaks during a cabinet announcement event at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware.Overall, Yellen explained that the new administration supports the call for tech companies to pay more taxes, a statement that won praise from French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who spoke at the World Economic Forum.“I think it is very good news that the new Secretary for the Treasury Janet Yellen just explained that she was open about the idea of thinking about a new international taxation with the two pillars: First of all, digital taxation and, of course, also a minimum taxation on corporate tax,” Le Maire said. “I think we are on the right track. There is a possibility of finding an agreement on this new international taxation system by the end of this spring 2021.”German Finance Minister and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses a press conference following talks via video conference with Germany’s state premiers in Berlin on Dec. 13, 2020.The comments echoed those by German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. He told Reuters on Tuesday he hopes an international agreement on digital taxation will happen by summer.Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are dubbed as GAFA in France by those who criticize what they say are the multinationals’ longstanding avoidance of European taxes.For years, former U.S. president Donald Trump had opposed any proposal to tax the tech giants.The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) hosted the international talks over digital taxation. Members postponed a deadline for an agreement into 2021 after the U.S. pulled out of talks in June last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.The French finance minister said it is a matter of fairness.“The winners of the economic crisis are the digital giants,” Le Maire said. “How can you explain to some sectors that have been severely hit by the crisis and that are paying their due level of taxes that the digital giants will not have to pay the same amount of taxes? This is unfair and also inefficient from a financial point of view.”Last October, the OECD warned that tensions over a digital tax could trigger a trade war that could wipe out one percent of global growth every year.

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Malawi’s Former President Welcomes Biden Administration, Criticizes Rival

Peter Mutharika is certain he won reelection last June, in a poll which he insists was rigged and which triggered violent protests.But instead of pursuing his case through the courts, he invited the new president and his wife over for a chat and some coffee.Landlocked Malawi is Southern Africa’s poorest nation, and was rocked by political protests over the June poll, which was a redo of a February poll that courts invalidated. But after months of protests and challenges, Mutharika folded and says he’ll never run for office again.“I thought we needed peace in this country after 11 months of violence,” Mutharika said. “So that’s what happened, and I think my people are so glad, that they acted responsibly and accepted that we should go on, let them take the government and let Malawi go on in peace.”Malawi’s newly elected President Lazarus Chakwera takes the oath of office in Lilongwe, Malawi, June 28, 2020.President Lazarus Chakwera acknowledged, broadly, some of his shortcomings late last year, said he accepted criticism for his handling of the pandemic and other pressing issues.”Someone asked if I have done enough,” Chakwera said. “No, I will be the first one to tell you that I have not done enough, and this country has not done enough.”One thing Chakwera’s government was quick to do shortly after taking office was to freeze Mutharika’s bank accounts amid a corruption investigation. The former president is accused of taking part in a $6 million scheme to illegally import cement.When asked about it by VOA, Mutharika denied his involvement in the purchase.Mutharika, who remains leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, called out his rival for what he sees as his biggest stumble — dealing with coronavirus.He said the government has failed to provide enough tests and economic assistance for citizens affected by viral restrictions.“They need to do more,”  Mutharika said. “We probably need some kind of lockdown at some point. We also need to have resources to assist those families in terms of buying food and nutrition.”The former president did note the government is encouraging the use of face masks and urging people to social distance, steps he said were good for the fight against COVID-19.The 80-year-old statesman added that he would not hesitate to take the vaccine when it arrives in Malawi, which has yet to happen.And finally, Mutharika says he’s encouraged by political change in a major donor nation, the U.S.President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House, Jan. 22, 2021, in Washington.“We’ve already seen President Biden reversing so many things, going back to COP-25, for example, and also getting the United States back into the World Health Organization,” Mutharika said. “So, there are changes, and I assume that Africa, the previous government probably was not very active in Africa. I assume that perhaps the new government will be more active in Africa, as Democrats normally tend to do.”He did, however, offer some praise for the Trump administration, noting that Malawi was one of four countries that Melania Trump graced during her only tour of Africa, in 2018.    

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