How was the foodpanda Strike Organised? Part 2: Discussion and Future Direction












Riders’ Rider Concern Group



In the second part of the article analysing the 2021 foodpanda strike, we will discuss: (3) What special topics do we need to pay attention to regarding the mobilisation process? (4) What can we learn from the strike, and how can we go a step further in building Hong Kong delivery workers’ power in the long run?

Click here to read the first part that introduces the strike and decribes its mobilisation processes.


A few things to note

In this section, we will discuss several smaller topics, which will help us get a more complete picture of the strike and its mobilisation/organisation.


Heterogeneity and division

The workforce of foodpanda couriers is highly heterogeneous. They come from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds, use different vehicles for delivery, and work in different zones. Some work full-time while others work part-time, with correspondingly distinct interest. The strike situation and organisation process also varied along some of these dimensions. Sometimes the fragmentation also hinders the formation of solidarity and unity.



In the foodpanda strike as well as previous delivery workers’ strikes in Hong Kong, South Asian workers usually have a higher participation rate in stoppages and demonstrations than Chinese workers. Before the strike, many Chinese riders had discriminatory views on Indian and Pakistani workers. But in the strike Chinese and South Asians generally demonstrated cross-ethnic solidarity. Around the world, scholars studying platform delivery workers’ struggles have also noticed the prominent role played by ethnic minorities or migrant workers. For instance, Woodcock (2021: 40) has discussed how the migrant networks contributed to the ‘invisible organisation’ in the UK Deliveroo workers’ movement. Thus, among labour activists and scholars in Hong Kong, there has been a tendency to view South Asian minority workers as ‘more homogeneous, united, and in solidarity with each other’ than ethnic Chinese workers, and it is often believed that there are ‘ethnic leaders’ enjoying authority simultaneously in the industry and in their communities, who have the power to ‘ask’ others to take part in the actions (e.g., Hui 2021: 11-12).

Our observations of the foodpanda strike suggest that such views might be too overgeneralised. Needless to say, the ‘South Asian’ population, consisting of multiple nationalities and religions, is by no means ‘homogeneous’. Moreover, despite the fact that networks in a zone are often formed along the line of ethnicity, South Asian courier are not necessarily always ‘more united’. For example, the networking level of Kwun Tong Chinese riders were higher than both Kowloon City and Kowloon Bay South Asian couriers. Finally, we are not aware of any prominent figure who is a ‘leader’ in both the community and the industry. In a word, the mobilising capacity of ethnic minority ‘leaders’ and the organising patterns in South Asian communities could be explained more by the specific conditions (e.g., the existence of ‘captains’ before, relationships developed during work, pre-existing migrant networks, etc.) than by a general, magic form of ‘unity’.[1] And their often more disadvantaged position in the labour market associated with wider ethnic inequalities in education and socio-economic status might better explain why South Asian riders seemed more deeply involved in the strike than Chinese. In analysing and advancing the labour movement, we need to be careful not to essentialise ‘ethnic unity’ and reinforce stereotypes about racialised minorities.


Vehicle type and full-time/part-time status

The division between vehicle types and part-time/full-time workers is also significant. Full-time couriers are mostly riders while some are cyclists, and most South Asian couriers are riders. This group of people have the highest level of dependency on the delivery platforms for their income and livelihood. They are also relatively stable in the job. By contrast, walkers tend to be part-timers. This means full-timers and part-timers often have different interest and demands in the platform work, which could hinder the formation of solidarity beyond the segmentation. Meanwhile, the pre-strike level of networking between riders also tended to be stronger than walkers.[2] Therefore, not surprisingly, riders were the main force in the strike, since the pay cut and worse work conditions affect them the most, while walkers barely showed up in any protests or even still worked on the striking days, as reported by some. This further made some full-time riders angry about part-time workers.



Last but not least, the strike size was different in different zones. Even in some zones there was almost no strike. For instance, Central is usually regarded as one of the busiest delivery areas in Hong Kong, and the riders there (South Asian and Chinese) reportedly had a strong network and mutual-support culture. But surprisingly, nearly no one joined the strike, and workers were mostly ‘enjoying’ in the work because they could receive more orders than normal due to the disruption in other zones. This might have to do with the factors mentioned earlier (pre-existing networks, leadership, etc.), but also others beyond our knowledge, as the size and characteristics of the workforce can vary greatly across zones due to distinct demographic composition, geographic features, and other factors. At least, it should be pointed out that participation in the strike was highly uneven across zones.[3]


A map of the zones with pandamart protests on Nov 13th or 14th. Source: 蔡美琦 (2022).


The role of external groups

The foodpanda strike is often regarded as the first significant labour collective action in Hong Kong’s ‘post-unions era’ (陳萃屏 & 何逸蓓 2021), as some trade unions and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) disbanded shortly before the strike. Nevertheless, the movement was not completely without assistance from external groups. The important external players included the Riders’ Rights Concern Group under the Hong Kong Christian Industrial Committee (HKCIC, a labour NGO), and the Catering and Hotel Industries Employees General Union (飲食及酒店業職工總會), an affiliate of the former HKCTU.

In terms of mobilisation and organisation, the Concern Group’s role was twofold, corresponding to the online and offline mobilising processes. First, the two members of the Concern Group, who had been part-time walkers in the platform, served as ‘facilitators’ in the discussions in the Telegram and WhatsApp groups. In order to facilitate effective discussion and decision making about the strike agenda and plan, they translated between Cantonese and English, exchanging information between the ‘main group’, ‘leader group’ and other groups, created shared documents to collect demands, launching votes and polls on important collective decisions. They also made posters and flyers, send them to different groups, printed them out and distributed them to a few zones. This turned out to be a key catalyst for the protests at pandamarts as couriers in different zones all acted according to the agenda written on the poster. Many couriers also printed out and distributed the poster within their own zones. Second, the Concern Group spent two to three days face-to-face persuading Kowloon City/San Po Kong couriers to join the strike, similar to what Kam-lung did in Kowloon Bay. A small protest and media conference was also made at San Po Kong pandamart thanks to the Concern Group’s (limited) link with some South Asian riders in the zone.


The poster made by the Concern Group and then appeared in various zones. Source: Riders’ Rights Concern Group.


The organiser from the Catering and Hotel Industries Employees General Union were also active in the Telegram group discussions. This union had been assisting with couriers’ termination and work injury cases as well as collective actions since 2017. In the past, some riders joined the union as members, but unionising couriers turned out to be very difficult. This time, it seemed that the Catering and Hotel Industries Union’s greatest contribution in organising/mobilising is that they helped the couriers to hold a mass demonstration and press conference in Kwun Tong.

Both the Concern Group and the union also played important role in the subsequent negotiation with the company, but we cannot go into details here.

Although the movement was generally spontaneous and self-organised by couriers, external groups’ assistance also added to it. As full-time NGO workers, the Concern Group members had more time and resources than ordinary couriers to mobilise others online and offline. The union organisers’ rich experience in various labour disputes meant they had more awareness of and knowledge in the importance and the way to attract media attention, to impose pressure on the company, etc.


Lessons to learn

The greatest concern of this article is the mobilisation and organisation processes in the 2021 strike and what lessons it can teach us.


‘Invisible organisation’

We have described the making of the strike as the interaction and synthesis of couriers’ self-mobilising online and offline, although it was rather ‘messy’, as seen in the lack of a clear structure and the segmentation along multiple lines. To some extent, the overall process might be characterised as ‘invisible organisation’ or ‘organised spontaneity’ that some scholars used to understand platform labour struggles elsewhere (Cant 2020; Woodcock 2021). This generally means ‘a non-union form of self-organization which was invisible to external observers’ (Cant 2020: 131). In the 2017 Deliveroo riders’ strikes in the UK, the main channels for invisible organisation were WhatsApp groups and zone centres (Cant 2020: 131), which bears a striking resemblance to the Telegram groups and in-zone organising in the foodpanda strike.

In Hui’s analysis of the 2020 Hong Kong Deliveroo strike, she emphasised the significant role of ‘informal structures’ in facilitating the struggle, which include ‘organic networks, ethnic solidarity, and informal leaders’ (2021: 16). The foodpanda strike was also to a great extent similar in these aspects, but we shall note that the ‘spontaneous’ aspect (i.e., online, anonymous communication involving a large participant base) was as important as the ‘organised’ aspect (i.e., more tangible person-to-person connections). Such anonymous, decentralised online mobilisation process was also seen in many platform workers’ collective struggles around the world in recent years.

More importantly, the above depiction of the mobilisation/organisation processes suggest that ‘invisible organisation’ is not a homogeneous process. Looking inside the ‘invisible organisation’, we can find diverse patterns of connection/network (often in a zone), with different mobilising/organising capacity.

Generally speaking, the stronger long-term ties a group of workers had, the higher their mobilising capacity would be, which then led to different modes of mobilisation. We have illustrated this point in detail in the second part of the article through the comparison between Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay.

Furthermore, the local community and leadership can be formed under different forces. In Kwun Tong, the communities emerged mainly out of necessity, as the couriers got familiar and attached to each other in daily information exchange, mutual help, as well as recreation activities. But in some zones, leadership was generated by the company’s past management structure. Some strike ‘leaders’ were foodpanda’s past ‘captains’ (team leaders, with some duty and power in managing the local workforce). Through performing the role, the captains had known and built links with more couriers than normal workers. They also appeared to enjoy certain levels of authority and prestige in their zone, which then helped them mobilise workers in the strike.[4] The zone of To Kwa Wan/Hung Hom might be such an example, where the workers picketed the local pandamart, being organised by the ‘leader’ (previous ‘captain’).

There were also some long-established, but almost purely virtual networks based on Telegram or WhatsApp groups. But they were not able to generate high level of solidarity and unity compared to the offline networks. Instead, they probably functioned more similarly to the newly created ‘main group’, where people might choose to join individually in a decentralised way.

There are important lessons to learn. Empirically, the strike shows the diversity in the ‘invisible organisation’ process, with multiple forms and factors. Pragmatically, the fluid online and offline networking and mobilising at least provides an effective model that seems replicable in future actions in this sector. This had also generally been the model in the past (e.g., in the 2020 Deliveroo strike, see Hui 2021).


From ad hoc mobilisation to long-term organisation and building associational power

Although the fluid and ‘messy’ mobilisation did lead to a large-scale strike, such a model has severe limitations that could restrict workers’ power both in a collective action and in the long-term resistance. First, the lack of structure made communication, collective decision making and action taking in the strike extremely hard. This further led to problems in the accountability of the so-called ‘leaders’, and the fact that some key decisions were not made democratically. Furthermore, the low level of ‘unity’ limited the possibility to strike longer or take any other action requiring a higher organisation capacity. Second, more critically, the ‘unity’ that formed only temporarily in an ad hoc manner in the strike was too weak to sustain itself after the whole incident ended. A few months later, in all the online groups, few riders are concerned when the company fail to implement some key solutions. In specific zones such as Kowloon Bay, riders have returned back to the norm of working individually every day, hard to enhance further the ‘unity’ formed in the strike. Even some ‘leaders’ are no longer as passionate as before. Basically, there does not seem to be any long-term, systematic endeavour among the couriers to advance their rights and benefits; neither is there any worker or workers’ network/organisation pursuing this cause.

These problems urge us to think about how to strengthen the solidarity and ‘unity’ of couriers—that is, their associational power—in the long run. In addition to mobilising for wildcat strikes like this, is it possible for couriers to build some kind of ‘organisation’ that is more stable on an everyday basis? This can be break down into two questions: What form of organisation should riders try to build? How can they do so?

Roughly, the organisational types seen in gig workers’ struggles worldwide can be divided into trade unions (mainstream or grassroots) or ‘informal’ groups/networks of workers (including mutual aid groups/communities, associations/collectives, etc.) (Ford & Honan 2019; Joyce et al. 2020; Trappmann et al. 2020). Interestingly, Trappmann et al. (2020) have found that ‘informal groups of workers’ were the main actors in platform labour unrest globally (present in 85.1% of the events), especially in Asia and South America, while mainstream or grassroots unions are involved in about half of the cases.[5] Moreover, studies in some Asian countries have revealed the particularly crucial role of ‘informal’ groups in platform workers’ resistances (Ford & Honan 2019; Hui 2021; Teerakowitkajorn & Tularak 2020). In light of these findings, the grassroots-led and diverse forms of self-organisation in the Hong Kong strike seems not surprising. Both the offline in-zone riders’ communities and the weak online networks are forms of ‘informal’ workers’ groups.

However, the prominence of ‘informal’ networks does not mean that trade unions are not important or should not be considered an option. In fact, in Asia, there are examples where platform workers successfully formed their own unions or union federations to further the struggle following more grassroots, informal organising, like the Taiwan National Delivery Industry Union and other city-level unions there, the Indian Federation of App-based Transport Workers (IFAT) and its affiliated unions, etc. Unfortunately, in Hong Kong, for delivery workers to join existing unions or found their own union seems not a viable approach now due to multiple reasons. First, the Catering and Hotel Industries Employees General Union, which tried to unionise riders from 2017, found that couriers are often not interested in union activities or fighting for their rights continually. After the foodpanda strike, we also noticed little interest in, or even sometimes negative responses to, the idea of forming a union. This is likely to be related to features of the job (high turn-over rate, a sense of ‘flexibility’), fragmentation of the workforce, etc.[6] Second, the crackdown on unions and the wider civil society has ‘posed an existential crisis for the very survival of independent trade unionism’ that operated in the last few decades (Lin 2021: 81).

As a result, in the current circumstances, it seems that the most (or even only) viable route for food delivery couriers in Hong Kong to get themselves organised is to form and enhance some kind of ‘informal’ groups or networks. But what specific form should it take? In the foodpanda strike, we have already seen some in-zone networks usually consisting of full-time motorcycle riders. They to some extent resemble the ‘neighbourhood-based driver communities’ of app-based transport workers in Indonesia (Ford & Honan 2019), though the latter seem to be more well developed.[7] As Indonesian drivers working in a neighbourhood meet during work and communicate in WhatsApp groups on a daily basis, they organically form ‘base camps’ out of necessity, which gradually become more formalised. The driver communities serve as ‘vehicles for mutual aid’ and the main functions include ‘defence from the threat of physical violence by conventional transport providers, help with vehicle or traffic incidents, information sharing and a sense of community’. Each community also appoint a leader, and leaders of different districts will have discussions regularly or when it is necessary (2019: 535-540). Platform delivery workers in Thailand have formed such ‘mutual support’ or ‘recreational’ groups as well, with similar functions as the ones in Indonesia. At times, the informal networks are also able to mobilise workers for collective actions and participate in negotiations (Teerakowitkajorn & Tularak 2020: 29-30).

These informal, neighbourhood-based communities are significant as they offer ‘a sense of belonging, welfare provision and participatory structures’ (Ford & Honan 2019: 545). Moreover, members of different Indonesian ‘driver communities’ sometimes form larger ‘driver associations’ for problem solving or representation (2019: 536). As seen in the strike, similar networks in Hong Kong also greatly strengthened couriers’ mobilisation capacity thanks to the pre-existing solidarity. This suggests that such communities have the potential to go beyond daily basic functions and serve as the foundation for larger collective resistance and organisation/representation attempts. Since the preconditions for such communities to emerge—a group of couriers working in a shared locality, physical spot for discussions, and necessity in mutual help—exists in every zone in Hong Kong, such neighbourhood-based community hence appears to the best current option to go one step further in organising couriers and building their associational power.

Some scholars pointed out that neighbourhood-based communities lack the institutional capacities to carry on large-scale collective actions, negotiations and legal campaigns, thus hard to go beyond immediate solutions and bring about structural change in the industry (Ford & Honan 2019: 545; Teerakowitkajorn & Tularak 2020: 30). To be honest, in the current Hong Kong context, even trade unions often lack such institutional capacities. Thus, we might not have to be concerned about this question too much at the current stage.

The next question is, how can we foster the formation and operation of such in-zone communities/networks? What can couriers do so that such communities can organically emerge? Here, we can learn from what the Hong Kong existing networks have been doing and the experience from Indonesia and Thailand. In fact, they provide similar answers. As we learned from Kwun Tong, San Po Kong and Central, the activities of Hong Kong riders’ networks include: timely information sharing and updating (face-to-face and online), work-related mutual aid (informing each other to avoid being fined by the police, assisting in handling traffic accidents, helping with App or other work-related issues, helping to deliver orders, etc.), small-scale and low-profile collective actions (against misbehaviours of vendors, customers, or buildings), and recreational activities (meals and sports). To facilitate the formation of such networks, these small and mundane, but specific and concrete activities or tactics might be good to start with. Meanwhile, riders’ pre-existing social networks (often small ‘circles’ consisting of three to five close friends, based on ethnicity, kinship, or working relationships) can also lay a foundation for stronger and wider connections. The bunch of tactics and conditions that could facilitate or restrict mobilisation/organisation, as discussed earlier, will also come into play and should be adequately considered.

Needless to say, there are challenges in building these networks. Only a small proportion of couriers have awareness or interest in labour rights or collective issues, and even those interested hardly have spare time or resource to initiate activities and sustain them. The need for such communities felt by couriers also varies. If most riders are able to or prefer to solve problems individually, then such a network does not seem necessary or helpful. Last but not least, the segmentation of the workforce makes it hard to foster solidarity across ethnicity or vehicle type.

From the Concern Group’s perspective, since neighbourhood-based couriers’ community is the most viable approach now to building workers’ associational power, we hope that such communities/networks could occur more widely in the delivery ‘zones’ across Hong Kong, as some naturally did before. Whether couriers will form a strong self-initiated network depends on a variety of factors, but external groups such as NGOs and unions can also try to facilitate or catalyse the process, as they usually have more resources than ordinary couriers. The Concern Group is now trying to build a South Asian riders’ network in Kowloon City/San Po Kong through some of the aforementioned tactics. It will also experiment with adding more rights orientation into the attempts.


Concluding remarks

In this article, we first briefly describe the whole story of the strike from its initiation to the outcomes. Secondly, we portray its mobilisation and organisation processes as detailed as possible. Thirdly, we reflect upon several key issues, all of which had distinct impact on the strike. In the end, we summarise the empirical and practical lessons to be learned from in terms of mobilisation/organisation, and the possible future directions in building Hong Kong delivery workers’ associational power.

In conclusion, we highlight again the core findings and ideas, which we hope could capture the uniqueness of the Hong Kong experience and offer some food for thought to readers around the world.

  1. The strike was mobilised and organised through a combination of online and offline efforts, which enabled couriers to act unitedly within a zone and also have some coordination across zones.

  2. The workers’ self-initiated ‘invisible organisation’ process was diverse, with different organising patterns depending on the degree of pre-existing links, and different basis behind these links.

  3. The workforce was segmented along various lines, which led to heterogeneity in the strike’s participation. Some factors favoured workers’ organisation while others might hinder it.

  4. Ethnic minority workers’ stronger organisation and participation than Chinese should be explained better by the specific social relations among a particular group of workers, as well as their higher dependence upon the job, than by the mythical internal ‘unity’ of the ‘South Asians’.

  5. External actors, mainly NGO and union staff, are indispensable in mobilisation, getting press coverage, and negotiation, though they were facilitators instead of leaders.

  6. Considering the international experience, especially those in Asia, as well as the current socio-political environment in Hong Kong, the most viable route to strengthening delivery workers’ associational power is probably to build informal neighbourhood-based communities/networks based on mutual support activities.


[1] Different ethnic groups might also differ in this aspect. As reported by a veteran unionist familiar with Nepalese construction workers, the community or even kinship-based network and leadership among them do seem to be much stronger than what can be found in the food delivery sector dominated by Pakistanis and Indians. This again reminds us of the heterogeneity and diversity within the so-called ‘South Asian’ minorities.

[2] It is reported by Tat that there was no group for Kwun Tong walkers in online instant messaging apps, while the riders there had considerable solidarity.

[3] It could be seen from the map below that most demonstrations at pandamarts happened in Kowloon, whereas HK Island and New Territories only had scarce places with protests. This reflects both the possible fact and the limitation of the authors’ knowledge.

[4] Interestingly, in the past, the captains had often been a hindrance to strikes as they dissuaded riders from participating, perhaps following the company’s orders. But in the 2021 strike, we heard that at least two to three captains supported the actions. The reasons leading to this difference needs further examination.

[5] But Joyce and colleagues’ (2020: 5) finding is rather different: ‘Globally, the majority of platform labour protests in our database are led by trade unions, either unofficial or mainstream, rather than forms of extra-union self-organisation (although the latter might be underestimated due to their lack of visibility).’

[6] The reflection by Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Couriers Network offers useful insights in this aspect, as well as in how to engage with couriers (see Davies 2020).

[7] Ford and Honan (2019: 534) categorised Indian platform transport workers’ organisation into three types: ‘driver communities’, ‘driver associations’ and ‘unions’, with stronger institutional capacity but weaker member participation along the spectrum.



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