China's Delivery Death Races

Zheng Yahong

[Editor’s Note: Food delivery is now a major business in China, with some 300 million people regularly using apps like Meituan or Ele.me. Officeworkers use them daily for getting lunch, while homebodies use them to spare themselves the trouble of going out. But as the following piece (originally written for AI Caijingshe) explains, the newfound convenience of the on-demand economy is underpinned by legions of highly visible, yet little appreciated laborers. Hundreds of thousands of waimai xiaoge, or “takeout little older brothers,” as they are called (they are almost always male) work under an unforgiving and exactingly regimented system, enduring harsh, contradictory, and risky conditions that can all too easily see them injured, or worse.]

Every 2.5 days in Shanghai, a food delivery person is injured or killed, because there is a contradiction in the delivery profession: to a certain extent, their pay is in proportion to the risk they take.

“I’m at your building, I’ll be up in two minutes, can I go ahead and mark it off as delivered?”

At noon and while at work, you might get a phone call like the above from a delivery person. Despite all the rushing around, he still can’t get the delivery to you in the predetermined time limit, so he calls to ask if he can’t mark it off, for fear of getting hit with a late penalty.

If he doesn’t ask first, and marks it as delivered before putting it in your hands, you can lodge a complaint, and the system will fine him 500 yuan.

During the daily peak of deliveries, the relation between a delivery person’s time and earnings is a tense battle.

Wang Yang (not his real name) joined Baidu Delivery half a year ago. He is 21, with a thin face and thick eyebrows, skin tanned by the sun. His red uniform hangs loosely over his slim frame. Wang is from Chengde and came to Beijing two years ago, previously working at a furniture factory, in a restaurant as a server, and as a security guard.

He’s bought two mopeds before, one for 4700 yuan, “sacrificed” early on. “It was unlucky. I got hit. I was going the wrong way, so it was my fault.” Wang was going the wrong way on Chaoyang North Road at the time when a car hit the rear of his moped, making him wipe out and hit an elderly woman waiting for the traffic light. “He hit me, I hit her.” Wang took her to the hospital and had to pay out more than 2000 in medical fees.

Wang was hurt himself, with one foot smashed so badly it swelled up. “I just toughed it out,” he says, laughing.

After the accident, his moped was confiscated because he did not have papers or a license plate for it. He had no money, so he borrowed to buy his second moped. This one was 3500 yuan, much cheaper than the first. After half a year, it doesn’t look anything like new, being entirely covered in a layer of grey dust.

Now, his foot is better. He looks down at his feet, shod in thin shoes, and is thankful that it “isn’t crippled.”

Wang was in another accident that saw him and his moped flipped over, but neither was hurt. He laughs as he recalls it. “I’m tough, [I came away] without any problems.”

Even after that, he still goes the wrong way on the street.

But Wang isn’t the one who has had the worst of it. Zou Fang (also a pseudonym) was once going the wrong way and was spotted and reported to Ele.me, his company, and so was fined 1000 yuan.

The delivery companies monitor whether or not their staff obey traffic laws, and at the morning meetings every day at 9:30 supervisors repeatedly emphasize that monitors will go out on the streets from time to time to observe and snap photos. Sometimes they will catch one of their delivery people, report them with photo evidence, and fine them.

Zou Fang is 40, and like Wang his skin is darkened from his time outside. Zou says that on the particular road where I meet him everyone drives the wrong way. If they didn’t, they would have to drive an extra 10 minutes to circle around to the other side of the street due to the median barrier. After he was fined, Zou wanted to appeal, but the process is complicated. “I wasn’t sure just where I was supposed to file the appeal,” he says. And besides, he knew he was at fault, so he let it go.

Even now, though, Zou still goes the wrong way on the street. Because of the time pressure he faces, he “can’t think about that many things.” And as Wang says, when there was a two day period of stepped up enforcement, he decided to take the long way around himself, only to find out that everyone else was still driving the wrong way, so he followed suit.

To better serve their users, delivery platforms and companies have set out entire systems of rules, encouragements, and penalties for their delivery people. These incentives and disincentives come from the best of intentions, but they are also the reason that the delivery drivers break the traffic laws.

Zhao Cheng (pseudonym) came to Beijing two years ago. He worked for a smaller delivery platform, but half a year ago joined Ele.me’s team.

Zhao has been working in delivery because, he says, “there’s a little more money. With delivery, the more you do the more you make, so as long you aren’t afraid of hardship you’ll do alright.”

Zhao manages to make 6000-7000 a month, of which 3000 is his base pay. He makes 400 deliveries a month, from which he earns the remainder. He says that currently he makes seven yuan per order, but that rate isn’t fixed.

Each platform’s formulas are different, but they follow the same logic: the more orders, the greater the incentive.

All the delivery platforms class their delivery people into grades based on user reviews. They are bronze, silver, gold, diamond classes, and so on. “Bronze, you get a dime more per order. Diamond, fifty cents more per order,” Zou explains. But he doesn’t know what grade he himself is at; when he checks on his phone, he realizes he is rated at fourth level “platinum.”

Moneymaking aside, Zhao says news of people getting injured in inevitable. “The way they clock you is too intense, and our rules are very strict. One complaint call and you get fined 500 yuan.”

Zhao says the heavyiest fine is for prematurely marking off a delivery, at 500 yuan. Complaints generally get a 200 yuan fine, but it depends on the situation, and can go up to 500 or even 2000 yuan. Wang says, “If a customer calls to complain about you, it only takes two words: ‘bad attitude’. And then you’re out 2000 yuan.”

Two days earlier, it rained, and Zhao was especially busy. On an average day he might have 40 orders, but that day he had 80. “Before I’d made one delivery, I’d get the order for another. By the time I made it to the restaurant, 20 minutes had elapsed, and the restaurant was busy, so they didn’t have the order ready, and I had to wait another 20 minutes. When I got it, I only had 20 minutes left. How could I deliver eight orders in one go? When I loaded my moped I felt so pressured I was drenched in sweat.”

“So sometimes, going the wrong way or running a red light, there’s nothing you can do. One minute becomes a long time, and can decide whether an order goes over time.”

And if they do go over time, Zhao says, their commission is halved. But that’s not the worst possibility. The worst is if the customer gives them a bad rating. When it rained that day, Zhao was rushing around from noon till night, and didn’t even have time to stop for a drink of water. One order ended up being half an hour late. “I made all these apologies, and then as soon as I left, the customer gave me a bad rating.” That got him fined 20 yuan.

Apart from fines, they also face both food and their moped or electric bike batteries getting stolen. On the day it rained, Lu Feng was making a delivery when the crate on his moped that held his deliveries was stolen, and he had to compensate the customers more than 200 yuan. “I didn’t make anything, and even had to pay out 200,” he laughs.

When they have worked for a long time and get to know the roads well, the deliveries run more smoothly. Zhao says he can sometimes make three deliveries in just five minutes. He points to the office building behind him. “Below the 15th floor I won’t wait for the elevator, I’ll just climb the stairs.” Noon is the peak time for the elevator, and waiting for it can take ten minutes. “But I can’t wait, I have to run.”

Returning to traffic violations, Zhao says he’s never been injured, just hurt his leg running. He understands all too well, “if something happens while you’re trying to make a little more money, it’s not worth it.” So Zhao doesn’t run red lights, though he will drive the wrong way. “I’m scared when I do that, I can see the cars coming, and I’ll stop to let them pass, but there’s really nothing else I can do.”

Twenty-one year old Wang isn’t happy at Baidu Delivery. He says when he first joined, he often worked until 2 AM, and then had to start work again at 7 AM. “I’ve been unlucky. Where someone else could make more than 20 deliveries, I could make five at most. You think that’s fair? And each order would be far away.”

“You see people running off for an order now, and I don’t get one.” As he says this he squints at the sun and feels the bag at his hip, where his phone is. It’s 10:50 AM, ten minutes from the start of the lunch time rush, and many of his peers are already starting to move.

Wang says there is little freedom in this job.

He points to himself. Every day he must wear black pants, his work shirt, his helmet, put the meals in the crate on his moped, and get photographed by the quality control monitors. If he doesn’t stow the food in the crate and is spotted, it’s a 125 yuan fine. If he comes to work without his uniform shirt, he can get locked out for seven days. “In those seven days you can’t take any orders, but have to go to headquarters to study.” If you don’t go to study? “You can’t make any money, and your number will be locked out.” Wang says every delivery person has a number tied to their phone and ID card. If his number were sealed out and he left Baidu Delivery, he wouldn’t be able to go to Ele.me or Meituan, either.

Wang is young and restless, and feels that some customers are “hard to please.” Sometimes there’s a problem with an order when the restaurant produces it, and some customers will call him to dress him down. To avoid getting a bad rating, he just has to endure it. “If it weren’t for the job, I’d curse right back at them.”

Forty year old Zou is more tolerant of bad reviews. “Some customers, even if you’re on time, they’ll take one look at you and give you a bad rating.” He pauses two seconds and then says: “But the good [customers] are more numerous.”

Two days before, Zou was 40 minutes late on an order. “As soon as they opened the door, the customer offered me a glass of water with jujubes in it. I didn’t have time to drink it, I still had a lot of orders to get to, so I said thank you and took off.” He laughs. “Just this one time, I was really moved.”

Although there are so many orders on rainy days, Zou doesn’t like them, as it slows things down. The roads are slippery, and many people don’t watch where they’re going, so he doesn’t dare rush.

Wang says what he loves most is reading novels. When I ask what plans he has, his first response is “read a couple of good novels,” and then after thinking another moment, he shyly says his parents have been urging him to start a family. “I’d have to find someone who’s blind.” In the end, he says he’ll have to work hard to make money.

Some delivery people drive and swipe on their phones at the same time to keep their location updated. “Otherwise you’ll be on one street, the system will give you an order that’s way behind you, and you won’t have time to backtrack.”

They all know they should obey traffic laws, that life and safety should be put first. But the contradiction in their work is that time means commissions, means fines, means bad ratings, or even means customers’ respect. So at every peak hour, they have to focus, charge ahead, and race against time. Every day they run back and forth on the streets, and the chance of an accident rises.

Maybe this is the shame of the work environment of every manual laborer. Earnings and personal safety sometimes hinge on one another. The delivery companies offer their incentives, and their penalties, and squeezed between the two you can’t help but turn whichever way there’s the greatest benefit to be had.

This year, when the food delivery market has grown beyond 200 billion yuan in value, the delivery men stand at what is the end, and bottom, of the chain.

Wang’s phone finally rings. He has an order. He laughs and pulls out his phone, looks at the order info. “It’s another one far away, I really don’t want to take it.”