When you order takeaway on either of China’s two main food delivery apps, a small icon of a motorcycle rider appears on a moving map so you can track when your food is about to arrive.
What the app doesn’t show is the frantic activity behind the movement of that small cartoonish icon.
While the cute blue or yellow marker progresses smoothly towards the destination, a real rider is running red lights, driving the wrong way down roads or sprinting up stairs to make the drop off in the allotted time.
The work is often dangerous, stressful and dictated by the algorithms that underpin the food app.
Last week, thanks to a long article published by Portrait, a local magazine, which went wildly viral, the public finally began discussing the morality of these apps, leading the two main operators – Ele.me and Meituan Dianping (the company proposed last Friday to simplify its name to just ‘Meituan’) – to build slightly more flexibility to their AI-powered systems.
Ele.me, for instance, inserted a new “I can wait five minutes” button for its users. However, the changes didn’t appear to tamp down criticism of the companies, which were accused of passing the buck to the consumer.
“The behaviour of the courier is not caused by the consumer… it is the management methods of the food delivery platform that need to be further improved,” the Shanghai Consumer Protection Association told ThePaper.cn.
Over six million takeaway delivery drivers ply China’s roads. They have been dubbed as the new generation of China’s migrant workers. Their jobs come with a lot of hardship and stress.
Their greatest concentration is, of course, in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, where they supply everyone from hungry office workers to construction workers and peckish patients in hospital.
They can often be seen frantically pressing the elevator call button in office blocks only to realise it might shave valuable seconds off their delivery time if they sprint up the stairs rather than wait.
Similarly, they can be seen gathered round popular noodle shops just before lunch, shouting to be given their delivery as quickly as possible – as they know it is more likely that their own personal rating, not that of the restaurant, will suffer if food comes late or cold.
Their distinctive look comes from the fact that most couriers either wear blue or yellow – the rival colours of Ele.me and Meituan – and they almost never have time to take off their motorcycle helmets.
According to the Portrait article, they are in a constant state of stress, always trying to make the impossible delivery times set by their employers’ algorithms or worrying that their pay will be docked for a bad rating.
Almost all have to sacrifice their safety or wellbeing to do the job – often because the underlying algorithms have a fault in them, such as calculating the delivery time based on a direct line between the collection and drop points, or send the drivers on routes that are only intended for pedestrians.
One of the drivers’ biggest gripes, according to the viral article, is that the app operators don’t take vertical distance into account – even if they have to wait for a lift or run up several flights of stairs to reach their destination. Riders also believe that their employers deliberately understate the times required in order to get people to choose them over a competitor.
Moreover, in recent years drivers have noticed that the time they are being given to do a certain route has decreased. According to company data most meals are now being delivered 10 minutes quicker than they were three years ago.
“Delivering food is a race against death, a competition with traffic police and a prayer for a friendly traffic light,” said one driver quoted in the Portrait article.
There’s also peer pressure too coming from co-workers delivering in the same area, because delays or customer complaints will affect the group’s collective income. “I saw a colleague badly injured this afternoon. But I had to ride straight past him so that I would not miss my deadline as well,” another rider told the Portrait.
Of China’s food delivery drivers 5.75 million work for Ele.me and Meituan. Their number have grown dramatically in recent years as the business has expanded – partly driven by the huge discounts the duo offer to undercut each other. Their competition has added to the pressure on their riders. In one case a Meituan delivery man stabbed a vendor because he wasn’t handing over the food quickly enough. In other examples, gangs of riders from the two companies have had physical fights over their right to serve certain areas.
The pressure to meet tight deadlines has led to an increase in road accidents involving takeaway drivers too. In 2018 at least one delivery person was killed or injured every day in Chengdu, according to local police. In Shenzhen the food delivery drivers are involved in 12% of all traffic crashes.
And not all accidents are caused directly by them or the time pressures imposed upon them by apps. Some die in thunderstorms when they are hit by lightening, or are killed in collisions with trucks late at night.
The apps offer a 24 hour service, come rain or shine, which often means the drivers are going out in perilous conditions. Continued food deliveries during the Covid-19 lockdown were another example of their hazardous work.
The article was so widely read that Ele.me and Meituan are now under pressure to improve the working conditions of their riders. “We don’t mind racing with time because it means higher income,” one rider said. “But it will be much better if we could have a day off a week or better insurance cover.”
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