China’s food delivery apps have come under fire for their treatment of employees after a television exposé featured an undercover government official posing as a delivery rider for Meituan.

The programme, which aired on a state-run television channel in Beijing on Wednesday, featured a senior official from the government’s municipal human resources bureau working a 12-hour delivery shift.

After earning just Rmb41 ($6.34) for the work, Wang Lin, the bureau’s deputy head of labour relations, was filmed sitting on a kerb describing the experience. “It’s truly too difficult, and what’s more, I felt very aggrieved,” he said.

He also said that Meituan had fined him 60 per cent of his commission for one order because of lateness.

The development represented the Chinese government’s latest broadside against big technology groups, which have faced increasing scrutiny in recent months. It came just two days after Meituan was hit with an antitrust investigation, while Alibaba, the ecommerce company founded by billionaire Jack Ma, was fined a record $2.8bn this month.

The government’s focus on China’s online delivery groups followed months of increased domestic media scrutiny over their treatment of riders. During the Covid-19 pandemic, orders boomed and riders were hailed as heroes.

The duration riders are given to deliver orders is determined by in-app navigation systems, which Chinese media claimed last year provided impossible routes and encouraged traffic violations.

The issue has even caught Chinese president Xi Jinping’s attention. During a visit to southern Guangxi province this week, the Chinese president proposed job policies for those who had travelled from poorer regions to work in cities and emphasised “the protection of the legitimate interests of truck drivers, couriers and food delivery riders”.

In response to Wang’s video, state media outlets Xinhua, CCTV and People’s Daily published opinion pieces praising the exposé. On Thursday, the state-run Beijing Daily newspaper published responses by Alibaba and Meituan to the video.

Meituan told the Financial Times that “improving riders’ experience . . . is our utmost priority”, citing examples of training programmes. “Of course, we know that these are not enough, and will continue to strive to improve riders’ experiences,” the company added.

Alibaba’s takeaway platform Ele.me did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However it was quoted in the Beijing Daily saying it had gradually cancelled fines it previously levied on riders for late deliveries.

The issues facing riders in China, such as low pay and a lack of employee rights, echo those in the US and Europe.

Chinese platforms claim that they have no formal employment relationship with riders, who sign contracts with intermediary labour agencies. This arrangement leads to little compensation for road accidents and limited legal recourse for riders. In January, a rider who had worked for Alibaba set himself on fire in protest over unpaid wages.

But the government has been wary of any sign of delivery riders organising themselves. In February, police in Beijing detained Ele.me worker Chen Guojiang, who was hailed as a “delivery riders’ alliance leader”.

Chen had risen to fame after posting short videos online about the daily life of riders and alleging that Ele.me mistreated workers. Although he was not unionising workers, authorities see the potential for any independent labour union, which is illegal in China, as a major threat.

On April 2, Chen was charged with “spreading quarrels”, a generic charge often brought against civil society activists.

Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing