How China’s People With Disabilities Are Confronting the Future of Work

by alvamayer27

In a nondescript office building in suburban Shanghai, a team of data annotators works quickly and quietly, labeling texts ahead of a major tech company’s artificial intelligence launch.

At first glance, the scene is indistinguishable from any hundreds of other offices across China on any given day. But a closer look reveals some crucial differences: mobility devices in the break room, handicap-accessible facilities, and wheelchairs in place of office chairs.

Welcome to Zhide, a social enterprise dedicated to increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities in China. Founded and financially backed by the charity One Plus One Group For Disability, Zhide has grown rapidly in recent years, from a consulting-based business that connected people with disabilities to potential employers to a mid-sized subcontractor employing 80 annotators spread across five offices.

Data annotation — also known as AI labeling — took off globally in the late 2010s as competing models sought to improve their image and text recognition algorithms. In 2018, the year Zhide started its annotation business, there were an estimated 100,000 full-time and 1 million part-time annotators in China.

Demand for annotation services grew rapidly over the ensuing five years. But low pay and difficult working conditions made recruitment challenging. Faced with a shrinking labor pool, industry and government figures turned to traditionally un- and under-employed groups to fill the gap, including rural women, interns, and people with disabilities.

This can make for uneasy working relationships. Tech companies often expect employees and contractors alike to work long hours with few breaks; high turnover rates are expected, even encouraged. Fu Gaoshan, Zhide’s founder and CEO, says the company must convince potential clients that the experience of its staff outweighs the accommodations required to hire them.

Yet Fu — who is visually impaired — believes that the annotation business is merely a tool for Zhide to meet its goals, including improving the financial and psychological independence of people with disabilities. Although pay is not high, the firm provides employees benefits, including career development training and a free accessibility-friendly apartment in the city. More importantly, it gives them a chance to escape the isolation of their homes and the stigmas that still surround disability in China and establish their independence.

Breaking free

In Zhide’s otherwise drab office, Yang Miaomiao’s desktop background stands out. A brightly colored play on a recent Moutai liquor marketing campaign, it declares that “Carrying bricks” — a well-known euphemism for the drudgery of white-collar work in China — “is sweeter than wine.”

As I talked to Yang, I realized the joke was grounded in something like genuine sentiment.

After being partially paralyzed in an accident when she was 9 years old, Yang was all but confined to her home for the next 14 years. Her rural hometown had almost no accessible facilities, she says, and her family felt it had no choice but to pull her out of school. For over a decade, she stayed indoors, under the care of her mother. “Even when we moved to an apartment with an elevator, I barely went out,” Yang recalls. “I had no friends or classmates to visit.”

After she turned 17, Yang found part-time remote work in customer service roles and farming experience for online gamers. These gave her a source of income, but she longed to leave home and work in a real office.

This desire to participate in even the most prosaic workplaces is not unusual among China’s disabled community. “If we work from home, we meet the same people every day,” says Li Na, a vision-impaired worker at Zhide. “We won’t have any new experiences, not even something simple like going to work in pouring rain or squeezing onto a packed subway compartment with other commuters.”

Even those that do find work often feel excluded from office life. China requires companies to employ a certain percentage of people with disabilities, or else pay into a disabled persons’ employment security fund. In practice, however, many firms hire people with disabilities solely to make quota and do not give them any responsibilities.

But the biggest obstacle the people with disabilities I spoke to face is also the closest to home: their families. The stigma around disability is strong in China, and many families, especially in rural areas, worry about their children’s safety if they move away.

Li, who is one of Zhide’s most tenured employees, has seen this process play out again and again. “In Chinese, one common word for disabled is canfei, which literally means ‘disabled and ruined,’” she explained. “Many parents believe that their children are doomed when they became disabled.”

Yang Miaomiao was no exception. Two years ago, when she first told her mother that she planned to take an office job in Shanghai, roughly 1,000 kilometers from their home in a rural part of the central Henan province, her mom did everything she could to persuade Yang to turn it down. After Yang bought a ticket and left anyway, her mom was so worried that she cried every time they video-called each other.

“Their only expectation for me was to stay healthy and stay close to them so that they could take care of me,” the now 25-year-old says. “Then they would help me find a husband to take care of me.”

Her family’s fears subsided as Yang embraced the freedom of living on her own. Last year, she traveled to the Great Wall in Beijing, West Lake in the eastern city of Hangzhou, and visited her longtime long-distance boyfriend in the northwestern city of Xi’an — all without incident.

“Previously, my life was the same thing every day — the only unstable thing was my income,” Yang says. “Yet over the past two years, everything has changed. I have proven to myself and my family that I can take care of myself, and that I can accomplish work on my own.”

“If you step out of your home once, then there can be a second and a third time,” she added. “But if you don’t take the first step, you might never make it.”

Making it work

For many people with disabilities, that first step involves finding a job. But doing so is easier said than done. More often than not, they have to take what they can get. Even many annotation jobs — common among people with disabilities because they are often remote, contract-based work — are short-term, poorly paid, and offer little in the way of benefits.

Even graduates of elite universities often struggle to find work due to the stigma around their disabilities. Li went to one of China’s top universities for students with special education needs. But after graduation, she struggled to find work outside of the massage industry — a traditional landing spot for the visually impaired.

Social enterprises like Zhide offer an alternative. Although technically for-profit, social enterprises are expected to use their earnings to fund a given cause. That allows them to offer workers a better deal than they might find elsewhere.

For Fu, that means being willing to switch industries in search of better opportunities. Previously, Zhide had focused on finding jobs for people with disabilities in the call center industry. When robocalls began replacing humans in the mid-2010s, Fu pivoted. The company began exploring the data annotation market in 2016, looking into more than 20 different types of annotations before deciding to start in the automobile market. Carmakers, who needed annotators to help teach their self-driving algorithms, had longer time horizons and put more emphasis on team stability, he says.

Still, it was a struggle to convince potential clients to agree to Zhide’s demand for hourly rates, which it viewed as vital for employee retention and welfare. “Piecework takes less training and is usually repetitive and short-term, while hourly pay requires more education but can provide longer-term and more stable positions,” Fu explained.

Learning to work with people with disabilities also took time, for both Zhide and its clients. Fu says the company had to negotiate with a tech firm, not just on pay, but over scheduling. Eventually they convinced the client to monitor progress on a daily basis, rather than every half hour, in part by pointing out that people with disabilities need more time to use the restroom.

Despite these challenges, Fu is pleased with the results of their employee-centered approach. Due to their low turnover and experienced staff, the company can still deliver its projects on time, he says, something that their clients value. “We chose the model that would enable us to provide long-term projects for employees, since, given time, we could create a community,” Fu explains. “Good jobs require work to create.”

Fragile gains

Although social enterprises like Zhide can offer people with disabilities more opportunities, they are a long way from solving their employment problem. There are an estimated 85 million people with disabilities in China, the vast majority of whom are either out of work or toiling in short-term, low-paid positions.

Clients, too, are often skeptical of working with companies that hire people with disabilities. “It’s a delicate balance,” Fu says. “While we need to guarantee our companions’ rights and benefits, we try to minimize the changes our clients need to make.”

The rapid advancement of AI technology has only complicated their work. Annotation has become a more intensive job in recent years, and annotation companies have raised their requirements for annotators. Baidu’s new data annotation base in the southern island province of Hainan advertised its team was composed entirely of university graduates, while other companies have started recruiting master’s students from top universities as intern annotators.

For Fu, this all carries a whiff of deja vu. Seven years ago, when Zhide first entered the annotation industry, the majority of its full-time employees, Li included, worked in its call center outsourcing business — an industry that has since almost been completely wiped out by automation. Now he says he’s looking into cafés as a potential replacement for the annotation business.

In the course of reporting this story, I was struck by the push-and-pull relationship between tech and the workers who power it. For a time, companies like Zhide seemed able to strike a balance, spreading the benefits of the digital economy while resisting the exploitation inherent to it.

But the burdens of this system are not shared equally, and they fall particularly heavy upon the disabled community. The people I spoke to were united on one point: They want to be treated with the same dignity as anyone else. But as more and more jobs are made redundant or contingent by technological progress, that dream feels increasingly out of reach for everyone, not just the disabled.

These feelings are particularly acute in the annotation industry, where workers are, in a very real sense, training their replacements. But Zhide’s emphasis on employment over profit offers a real alternative to the current system.

“Humans are regarded as a company ‘resource,’ which means that they are supposed to act in service of the company machine,” Fu says. “But we keep forgetting that a job is first and foremost about serving people.”

(Header image: Yang (center) leaves work, March 26, 2024. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)

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