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As the food delivery industry booms, concern has increased over the working conditions and safety of delivery riders, who are putting in longer hours for declining pay and little sleep

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Wang Lin, who usually works a standard day in an office for the Beijing government, collapsed by the roadside after he worked a 12-hour shift as a takeout delivery rider. “I feel very annoyed, it’s really so hard to earn money as a delivery rider,” he said.  

In April, Wang, deputy director of the Labor Relations Office of Beijing Municipal Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security worked a full day for Meituan Dianping, China’s biggest food delivery platform with 290 million active users. For his 12-hour shift, he only made 41 yuan (US$6.42) from five orders. His story reported by Beijing TV News, caused a sensation. Wang’s experience was a deliberate exercise, coming ahead of new rules to be drafted on supporting and regulating emerging industries, including food delivery platforms.  

Researchers have long tried to draw attention to the arduous working conditions delivery drivers face. Chen Long, a post-doctoral research fellow in sociology at Peking University, conducted five months of fieldwork as a food delivery rider in 2018. In his recently published research papers, Chen describes the effect of digital control of the human aspect of the industry, which erodes autonomy, something the industry touts as a reason to become part of the gig economy. 

In the conclusion to one of his papers, Chen writes: “Digital control has changed from physical machines and computer equipment to virtual software and data. The platform system makes the order of labor possible through subtly collecting and analyzing data from the riders and using these data analysis results to manage them. Thus ‘digital control’ not only weakens the rider’s willingness to resist and gradually reduces their autonomy, but also invites them to participate in an implicit process of self-management.”  

Food delivery riders are ubiquitous in Chinese cities

Daily Life 
The two biggest food delivery platforms in China are Tencentbacked Meituan, and rival Ele.me, owned by tech rival Alibaba Group. Figures released for 2020 show Meituan capturing an even bigger share of the market with 67.3 percent over Ele.me’s 26.9 percent. Star.ele.me, its premium service, has 4.0 percent, with others making up only 1.8 percent, according to data from Statista in April.  

As the internet service industry grows, it has attracted more workers of all ages. According to the most recent government statistics, in 2019, the number of employees in the Chinese express delivery industry exceeded 10 million, with at least 7 million more in the food delivery sector.  

Meituan had more than 4 million delivery riders registered on its platform in 2020, and Ele.me had more than 3 million.  

One Meituan delivery rider, 29-year-old Xiao Yue, said this increased number of riders means longer working hours, not shorter, as more riders compete for delivery slots. Delivery riders from Meituan and Ele.me told NewsChina that most riders work a minimum of 12 hours a day, and many work up to 18 or 19 hours.  

On June 2, from 6am to 11am, Xiao Yue delivered 12 orders, making 84 yuan (US$13), an average of 7 yuan per delivery. At lunch time when business is good, riders try to get as many orders as they can. “I can make a maximum 30 to 40 orders a day from 6am to 11pm, and this means I get a monthly salary of around 10,000 yuan (US$1,562),” Xiao Yue said, adding that he sleeps at most four or five hours a day. He lives in a village in the rural-urban fringe zone of northeastern Beijing, and his rent increased from around 800 yuan a month (US$125) to 1,200 yuan (US$187) this year.  

As the platform hired more riders to make it more efficient, Xiao Yue said the team in his patch of roughly 20 square kilometers expanded from 40 to 70 riders in the last three months. “This means I struggle to get enough orders during the same working hours, so I have to work extra every day to make up the difference.”  

As it expanded the number of riders, profits increased. In 2020, Meituan recorded 66 billion yuan (US$10.3b) in food delivery. The company has other businesses too, including ride sharing and travel. The food ordering industry in China reached an estimated 665 billion yuan (US$97b) in 2020, Techcrunch reported, with 395 million, or 45 percent of the country’s internet users having ordered food delivery online.  

The attraction of better pay and greater flexibility of the delivery industry lured more people in, particularly factory workers and other manual laborers. There was also an influx of labor in 2020 due to the pandemic, when many people were laid off as factories and businesses were shut. Riders value the idea of freelancing, although in practice they may end up working longer. Still, it frees them from strict shift times in factories and other jobs, and they can take time off if they need to.  

“I think this job is more flexible. I quit my former job at Beijing Capital International Airport to become a delivery rider earlier this year. I work from 6am to 9pm every day, and I make 6,000-7,000 yuan (US$937-1,093) a month,” a rider surname Wang, 43, told the reporter in early June.  

Yet the freedom is a trade-off between a long working day, absence of social insurance from the employer, and other challenging factors. Delivery riders do not sign a formal labor contract, instead they register with an intermediate body so employers like Meituan do not need to pay social insurance contributions for riders. “We only have employment injury insurance partially paid by the employer,” said a Meituan delivery rider surnamed Li.  

When a customer places an order on a delivery app, they can track the rider’s progress on a map. Seen as an innovation for customers, in reality the riders describe the delivery process as “dangerous,” “adventurous” and even “life threatening.”  

Each order has to be delivered within a specified time offered by the platform calculated by the algorithm, which does not take real-world conditions into consideration like weather, traffic, red lights, viaducts, one-way streets, speed limits and elevator time. To make their delivery targets, riders resort to speeding, riding on the wrong side of the road and running red lights. If the customer files a negative complaint or review, their income may be docked anyway. Working long hours on little sleep increase the danger for all road users, including pedestrians, other drivers and the delivery riders themselves. 

According to an exposé by People magazine titled “Takeaway Delivery Riders: Trapped in a System” in September 2020, in 2019, the average time for each order was shortened by at least 10 minutes compared with three years earlier. Data from traffic departments in different places indicates the high risk food delivery riders face and the dangers they pose to other road users. According to Shanghai Municipal Public Security Bureau, in the first half of 2019, on average, one takeout rider died because of a traffic accident every 2.5 days. Shanghai police recorded 325 injuries and deaths of takeout and parcel delivery riders in the same period, with Meituan and Ele.me riders accounting for 70 percent. In the same year, Shenzhen, South China’s Guangdong Province, saw 12 deadly traffic incidents among delivery riders within three months. In 2018, Chengdu traffic police levied 10,000 fines on delivery riders who violated traffic rules within a seven-month period.  

The report highlighted that riders are often directed along dangerous roads, sidewalks, one-way and pedestrianized streets. The article was viewed millions of times, with many people commenting that they would not mind waiting a bit longer for their food. Ele.me responded by adding a button to allow customers to choose to wait longer, and Meituan said it would allow more flexibility, while critics said the firms were both passing the buck to customers and doing nothing to address the real issues.  

A delivery rider makes a trip on a snowy day, Dandong, Liaoning Province, March 15, 2019

A delivery rider on a bike in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, August 28, 2019

A delivery rider squeezes between cars on a busy street in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, August 28, 2019

A delivery rider takes a break on a bench in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, September 10, 2020

Invisible Hand 
The platform system is responsible for ordering, directing, and rewarding riders, so even if the system is not a visible entity, it is more than unfeeling software. It is a sentient manager. In Chen Long’s study, he observed first-hand that food delivery riders “keep pleading in their hearts when there are not enough orders.” Because the platform system acts as a manager, riders vent their dissatisfaction on the platform system as well.  

At the same time, the platform system presents the basic information of the rider including their name and phone number, location, their route and other information for the customers to supervise the delivery. If the rider deviates from the route, the customer can tap a button to prompt the rider to speed up. Customers can even call through the platform to question the rider about changing routes. According to Chen Long, the “monitoring of the dynamic whereabouts of the rider, ‘rush’ button and calling to contact riders directly are manifestations of a customer’s one-way supervision and intervention of the rider’s labor process.” 
However, riders must fulfill customer requests since the rewards and penalties from the system is based on the customer-centric “oneway” evaluation mechanism.  

Riders are awarded little opportunity to respond to customer comments and complaints. Furthermore, the proportion of rewards for a good review and penalties for bad reviews and complaints is imbalanced. As Chen Long wrote in his paper “Labor Order under Digital Control: A Study on the Labor Control of Takeout Platform Riders” in Chinese journal Sociology Studies in June 2020, “riders can receive a 2 yuan (US$0.3) bonus for a good review, but fines from 20 yuan (US$3.12) into the hundreds of yuan for a negative comment or complaint from customers.” In Chen’s view, the real conflicts between riders and customers are caused by the rules of unfair rewards and penalties.  

The platform is like a data terminal which connects all parties in the transaction. “If we regard the labor order of the takeout platform economy as a network, then the system is the core, with merchants, consumers, riders, stations, platform companies as nodes, and takeout riders connect the core and nodes through their delivery behavior,” continued Chen in his paper.  

According to Wen Xiaoyi, dean of the School of Labor Relations and Human Resources of the China University of Labor Relations, young workers are attracted to the gig economy, including the food delivery industry, for many reasons. The salary system is simple and direct, and workers can see the income they earn immediately through the app, thus generating a fair sense of more pay for more work.  

As the gig economy started to rise due to venture capital investment, platforms quickly attracted workers through offering financial subsidies. During this golden era, delivery riders could make monthly salaries of up to 20,000 to 30,000 yuan (US$3,122-4,683).  

As the platform economy started to expand, income declined rapidly with the massive influx of workers. But, as Wen told Sanlian Lifeweek Magazine in an interview in late April, the average income for food delivery riders is still nearly 20 percent more than the average income of factory workers. The relatively high salary of gig economy workers such as food delivery riders is, according to Wen, because the platform does not need to take on the responsibilities and costs, such as social security, that factories or other employers do.  

Riders still have to pay taxes, and contribute 180 yuan (US$28) toward their injury insurance, but do not get sick pay, holiday pay or pension contributions. They also have to buy their own bike.  

“If delivery riders had other choices, they wouldn’t choose this occupation, but as long as you have an e-bike and are in good health, you’ll get hired. There are not many job options for them,” an industry insider told the reporter in late May.  

“Despite the declining payment per order, riders can make up their losses through working longer hours. This is self-exploitation and irresistible,” the source said. In his view, riders are regarded and regulated like a machine by the platform.  

Following Wang Lin’s undercover shift in Beijing, Meituan vowed to improve conditions, including addressing the issue of order allocation that Wang’s experience highlighted, and providing other benefits such as holiday pay, media reported.  

“Our riders have all heard about the recent investigation of an official from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security into Meituan, and I hope that it helps authorities make proper policies to better regulate the industry,” the source said.  

As a labor-intensive industry, food delivery platforms can provide a significant number of job opportunities and authorities are unlikely to force the enterprise to increase costs immediately, so the situation may not improve in the short term.  

“But I think the situation will definitely improve, so we are very optimistic about the industry’s future,” the source said.