Grade 12 student Daniel Chen’s interest in improving the gig economy, brought about by his research in AP Capstone, has helped land him in a Yale University magazine.

A research article by Daniel, focused on the impacts of the pandemic on food delivery workers in China, was recently published in China Hands Magazine. The Yale publication is student-run and shares analysis of China-related issues.

Daniel says it was during a visit to Beijing a few years ago, where he saw how fast and how cheap food delivery was, when he first gained an interest in this area (watch this video on the gig economy for an explanation of its meaning). After returning from Beijing, he took a summer course through Stanford University on digital labour. That sparked an even deeper interest, particularly from a research perspective.

“It was a mind-blowing class where I learned about different types of companies in the gig economy and really explored the problems that exist. The first four units talked about how the platforms exploit the workers, and the last four units talked about how workers work around the limitations and exploitation,” he says.

A new economy leads to room for improvement

During the last decade, the gig economy has burgeoned. The advent of technology, particularly thanks to ride-hailing and food delivery services such as Uber and Skip the Dishes, has led to a surge in the number of gig workers. Gig workers are contractors, not employees, for those companies, and as a result there are ongoing debates around worker safety, compensation and benefits.

“I feel like there are problems that need to be addressed in that community, and they can only be addressed when you look at the problems from the perspectives of all shareholders, not just labour,” Daniel says. “The problems are not going away. As society advances, more jobs can get replaced by technology. ... The problems cannot be solved by a radical movement or policy change, it has to be gradual, and it has to come from both the technology design and regulation.”

Last school year, as part of AP Seminar, Daniel and a group of fellow Grade 11 students examined how worker exploitation can be addressed. Following that, they spearheaded a business ethics competition that looked to improve the ride-hailing business model from the perspectives of drivers, managers and consumers.

The impact of the pandemic

This year, in AP Research, Daniel is diving even deeper into the gig economy by researching the impact the pandemic has had on the quality of life for delivery drivers in China.

“I saw a photo of a delivery man on the cover of Time magazine early in the pandemic and I thought to myself, ‘Will this problem be different during and after the pandemic?,’” he says. “They're portrayed as the heroes of society [by Time magazine]; they're connecting households with society by helping decrease the need to go out, decreasing the chance of infection. They're risking their lives to deliver food.”

Through the pandemic, Daniel interviewed nearly a dozen delivery drivers in China and surveyed another 200 people. All of this quantitative and qualitative data will help inform his AP Research paper.

“As a researcher, I have to be neutral about it; that's important in terms of seeing and spreading the truth, and not just spreading opinions. I feel like in order to solve any problem, really, that neutrality and the ability to gather evidence and do research is going to help me make the most informed decision,” he says. “That's what [AP] Research and Seminar are all about, and I love that about the classes.”

Daniel says through his research and interviews he heard a lot of skepticism from delivery workers around whether the gig economy can be changed for the better. However, he says that’s not deterring him from looking at where there's room for improvement.

“I heard so many pessimistic viewpoints from people who are afraid to speak up or who don’t have the time and energy to do it. That’s what still attracts me to this subject,” he says. “Is there anything I can do? Can I dig deeper and see what I can change, and maybe change people’s lives?”