Investigator: Professor Fang Lee Cooke, Associate Professor Tianyu Wang, China Academy of Social Sciences

This project explores the plausibility of introducing a regulatory strategy for registering digital platforms by types. It also examines digital platform labour disputes in court and how to better protect the rights and interests of platform labour service providers.


With the development of mobile Internet and algorithms, the transmission and matching of labour supply and demand information transcends the temporal and spatial restrictions in the conventional mode of employment. The transformation of this mode of employment has taken place in both Australia and China to various extents, and can be seen as a new trend in labour deployment with commonalities in the digital age, especially post-COVID-19. Individualised labour providers have a certain level of work autonomy, but at the same time, are economically dependent on the digital platform, and through long-term cooperation, they develop a virtual property known as ‘points’ tied to the digital platform, which requires labour providers to accept the rules of platform management. This semi-autonomous and semi-dependent employment situation highlights the limited utility of the subordination discourse that conventionally frames traditional forms of employment relationships; the digital platform employment phenomenon calls for new legal thinking and innovation.

Despite the magnitude of the platform economy in China, the state has not developed a systematic view about the risks and regulatory issues that may be involved in platform employment, nor a clear legal response to reduce the vulnerability of the labour providers and those whom they provide service to. In Australia, the existing labour law mechanism is also limited and evidently incapable of addressing problems arising from platform employment, particularly in the nature of the employment relationship between the worker and the platform and the related responsibility and liability, which are relatively well defined in traditional forms of employment. The legal dilemma and challenges are also experienced in the Australian context, although the scale of digital platform employment is much smaller than that found in China.

At the national level, the different institutional environments in China and Australia have an important impact on the development of digital platform employment and its regulatory framework. Comparatively speaking, China’s relatively loose entry and regulatory requirements have promoted the development of digital platform employment, but they have also accumulated problems and shaped existing labour rules. A particularly significant challenge is the potential liability when the labour provider has injured themselves or injured the third party. In the case when the nature of the contract between the labour provider and the digital platform is unclear, the problem is divided in law in China, and indeed, some other countries. The reason is that the current labour rules divide the mode of labour into two categories: independent labour and subordinate labour. Civil law applies to the former whereas labour law applies to the latter. Digital platform employment is a special form of employment that falls between the two. This calls for the development of new law to regulate this new form of digital platform employment effectively to ensure both efficiency and social justice.

We selected Australia and China for comparative study in part because China’s labour law system is a relatively young one that has emerged in the mid-1990s, with much scope for institutional learning and development. Although Australia’s labour law system began to be shaped in the 1920s, it has on the whole maintained a relatively steady course in the last forty years compared with that in the liberal markets, with the brief exception of a small period (1993-1997) that saw a ‘quite acute incline and decline in the level of protection’ (Cooney et al., 2009, p.25; see also Mitchell et al., 2010; Gahan et al., 2012). Notwithstanding the influence of a neo-liberal agenda, the protective strength of Australia’s labour law has not declined to the level found in liberal economies, such as the United States (Anderson et al., 2011). This makes the Australian legal regime a viable candidate for comparison and lessons learning in the development of China’s labour regulation and protection.

Research questions

This proposed study seeks to address the following research questions:

  1. What are the main modes of digital platform employment in China and Australia? What are the distinct characteristics and benefits of digital platform employment relative to regular employment?
  2. Under what institutional environments has digital platform employment emerged and developed in Australia and China respectively? What may be the societal impacts?
  3. What regulatory challenges do these developments present to Australia and China, and what lessons can be shared between the two countries in terms of regulatory efforts and achievements?

Engagement & Impact

This study has the potential to make several impacts. First, this research explored the plausibility of introducing a regulatory strategy for registering digital platforms by types. Second, the study revealed the analysis/judicial logic of digital platform labour disputes by the court and make relevant recommendations based on the findings. Third, findings of this study provide valuable information on the protection of the rights and interests of platform labour service providers, who are evidently placed in a vulnerable position in terms of the distribution of occupational risks.

On the policy front, this study provided recommendations for the regulation of digital platform employment in the two countries, especially in China. The development of digital platform employment increasingly challenges the relevance of current labour law for governing this form of labour relationship, and in the Chinese context, calls into question the practicability of the dual structure of the civil law-labour law. The Chinese government is beginning to take policy action to promote the transition from the existing dual legislative system towards a multi-level security network. Instead, it aims at creating a social security system with a multi-level security network that straddles civil and labour laws. This study coincides with the beginning of the transformation of China’s legislative structure. Its research findings from Australia will inform policy decisions in the Chinese setting