The scene has become omnipresent across China. Young men in blue and yellow uniforms sprint between high rises carrying plastic bags of food, frantically searching for directions on their phones, racing back to their motorcycles and speeding off to beat the clock in reaching their next destination. They are China’s food delivery drivers, foot soldiers for a booming industry that has rapidly changed how the country dines.
“I have five minutes,” grunted one breathless driver for the delivery giant Ele.me during a Saturday evening rush of orders in the city of Guiyang, “to drive three kilometers.”
Ele.me and fellow mobile food titan Meituan have conquered a Chinese food delivery market that has ballooned into a $37 billion industry. Like United States–based UberEats and Grubhub, the apps offer on-demand delivery from restaurants to doorsteps. It’s a convenience wildly popular with China’s growing consumer class; more than 400 million people, or over one-quarter of the country’s population, use online ordering software.
In China, the industry boom has been catalyzed by low delivery fees, aggressive marketing strategies, and a fleet of over 3 million drivers who are increasingly accustomed to poor safety conditions, decreasing wages, and fewer guarantees of consistent work.
In the first half of 2019, the Hong Kong–based China Labour Bulletin, which tracks labor movements in China, recorded 33 strikes by food delivery drivers, compared to 48 in all of 2018 and just eight in 2017, according to researcher Aiden Chau. Approximately 90 percent of these strikes are spurred by sudden wage decreases; in some cases, drivers have claimed their average daily earnings had abruptly dropped by half.
“A lot of drivers never see their employer before they stage a strike,” Chau said. “Companies say it’s just the algorithm. Workers don’t know how to respond to this, because they know nothing about the algorithm.”
Aside from unannounced wage cuts, striking workers also reported being assigned impossibly short delivery times, leading to more road accidents involving delivery drivers. Independent contractors face liability should they get into a collision–and according to multiple drivers, they are docked pay, or suspended by the platform, if even a single order is late.
One 24-year-old Meituan driver in Guiyang, who asked to remain anonymous as he said the company had instructed him not to speak to journalists, said he usually delivers three to four orders within 30 minutes, even on rainy days. “I’ve been driving for 10 days,” he said. “I already want to quit. It’s not safe.”
Ele.me, owned by tech giant Alibaba, and the Tencent-backed Meituan are already locked in a vicious price war to conquer the lion’s share of China’s roaring food delivery market. The companies, which combine for a whopping 90 percent market share, have invested heavily in data optimization and user experience and offer a barrage of vouchers and discounts to retain customers, according to Yuwan Hu, chief operating officer of Beijing-based Daxue Consulting. “Sometimes, consumers can order even cheaper food than by eating in a restaurant,” she said.
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These strategies have allowed China’s food delivery industry to grow three times larger than that of the United States, while keeping its delivery costs at around 10 to 20 percent of US standards—aided in large part by millions of low-wage workers, most of whom are hired as independent contractors and do not receive social benefits. Most drivers see food delivery as a stepping stone to a better job, but in practice, they carry out orders on a full-time basis despite not being directly hired as employees by the platforms.
“This is not a very desirable job,” said Hu. “You need to work more than 10 hours per day, no matter winter or summer, with or without rain. It is quite challenging for these employees.”
Food delivery can be a thankless job for drivers in China, most of whom are young men without college degrees who migrate from China’s small towns and rural areas to find work in its large cities. Globally, the industry has come under scrutiny. In the United States, drivers for popular apps such as Postmates and Caviar often fail to make minimum wage, and food delivery couriers in France have been found to outsource their deliveries to migrants and asylum seekers who work long hours for low rates.
Many drivers in China and the rest of the world work for several delivery platforms and accept multiple orders at once to earn a living wage. But food delivery is especially dangerous in China: Drivers for Meituan and Ele.me generally make less than $1 per order and break traffic rules to deliver them all on time. In 2017, government officials in Shanghai and Nanjing met with food delivery companies to address a dramatic rise in road accidents involving food delivery drivers; in Shanghai, 76 injuries and deaths of drivers had been recorded by police in the first half of 2017.
According to Chau, who tracks work accidents among delivery drivers for China Labour Bulletin, there has been no visible improvement—and the army of young blue- and yellow-clad motorcycle-riding food couriers has gained a reputation for dangerous driving among China’s other citizens of the road. Last summer, striking Meituan drivers complained that delivery times had been shortened and that the app’s built-in map assigned unsafe routes by showing distances far shorter than those shown by other online maps.
“There is a very consistent case pattern,” said Chau, who attributes the frequency of accidents to the demands of the algorithms. “We cannot frame it as an accident. It is something designed in the system.”
In China, where consumers take a laissez-faire approach to data privacy, delivery giants have collected a treasure trove of user data to offer promotions and lower prices to their customers, but according to Hu, there is no indication of data analysis being used to assign drivers safer routes and reduce traffic accidents.
“This is why a lot of food delivery workers are forced to stage protests,” said Chau. “They don’t want to risk their lives only by earning money.”
When reached for comment, Meituan said in a statement that it “has created millions of jobs” in China and “has made substantial effort to ensure the welfare and safety of delivery drivers in its network,” including providing periodic safety training and making it mandatory for drivers to be insured. Meituan also said it “leverages advanced technologies to make deliveries safer for riders,” such as smart scooters and headsets. Ele.me did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Strikes by food delivery drivers make up a small percentage of China’s overall labor actions, but unlike their fellow workers, their boss is faceless and their wage structure mysteriously determined by a secret algorithm. News of labor action in China is quickly subject to censorship, and as the only state-sanctioned labor union in the country does not cover food delivery workers nationwide, workers rely on social media, such as local WeChat groups for drivers, to share information and plan protests.
“Meituan and Ele.me are not establishing a way for workers to try to engage in the whole process and improve their position,” said Chau. “The state will try to persuade them to drop the case or offer meager compensation” in response to a strike, he added, and reports have indicated that instead of creating a venue for earnest negotiation, it has blocked strike leaders from delivery apps.
The cases highlight the difficulties of labor organization in the dynamic yet highly unequal capitalist economy of modern-day China. Striking workers and Marxist students supporting them were detained last year after attempting to start a union at the Jasic Technology factory in Shenzhen; some student leaders have since disappeared. Striking drivers, who make mostly economic rather than ideological demands, do not necessarily face this fate, but there has been a nationwide surge in police intervention, leading to arrests, to break up labor action throughout China.
Liu Junkun, a 29-year-old construction worker for Guiyang, is happy with Meituan as a side job. Construction, he said, “is like being in jail.… There’s no freedom. I feel free when I’m out delivering food.” But as a full-time job, it’s not enough. Liu said he is asked by customers daily to buy water, cigarettes, or alcohol for them on the way. Fearing a bad rating, he complies: Although Meituan says it allows drivers the opportunity to dispute claims made by customers, Liu worried that if someone files a complaint against him, he could be suspended. “One complaint, and you’re out,” he said.
For the 24-year-old Meituan driver who just began driving for the platform, that was the final straw. He said he received a customer complaint and, rather than being suspended, was docked US$72—about three days’ salary. When asked to respond, he dragged on a cigarette and responded tersely, “Yeah. That’s why I’m quitting.”