BEIJING: On a freezing Tuesday night in Beijing, it took me a few moments to realise that I was looking at a man lying face down in the road, dark blood pooling near his head.
I was waiting on my scooter for the delivery courier in front of me to move on, but when I looked past him at the obstacle, I realised I had witnessed the results of a traffic collision.
“Did you call a doctor?” I asked the courier, who was wearing the fluorescent blue uniform of the Shansong (“Flash Delivery”) platform.
“No, no,” the courier replied, mumbling excuses that the other driver was drunk.
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Drunk or not, he was lying unresponsive in the road. And it crossed my mind that one of the reasons the courier was stalling might be because he was worried he would have to pay medical bills.
For the first time in my five years in China, I called the ambulance hotline.
Meanwhile, the courier asked a passer-by, “Where’s building six?” and scarpered off on foot. After all, he had to make his delivery deadline or risk being fined by the app.
While I waited, the man lying in the road started moving and eventually stood up. The ambulance arrived. As I scooted – very slowly – home, I thought that we had been lucky: Couriers get into accidents far worse than this.
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THE TRADEOFF BETWEEN SAFETY AND TIME
Shanghai government figures show that in the first half of 2019, delivery and takeaway couriers were on average involved in 13 traffic accidents and the same number of injuries every week, leading to five deaths in those six months.
No wonder a Beijing News survey of more than 1,000 drivers found that 70 per cent labelled traffic safety as the biggest challenge in the job.
An investigation last September by the Chinese magazine People pointed the finger at the algorithms behind delivery apps. By setting tight delivery times, levying fines for delays and suggesting routes in violation of traffic rules, these apps encourage couriers to speed dangerously.
In practice, the platforms exchange courier safety for time. The platforms, such as Meituan or Alibaba’s Ele.me, would argue their innovations save time by matching orders with drivers.
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A LARGE, CHEAP POOL OF LABOUR
While these algorithms have garnered much academic attention, they are by no means the most important reason that China’s takeaway sector has grown to be 835 billion yuan (US$130 billion) industry, almost five times that of the US’.
The real firepower of delivery platforms lies in the fact that they have a large, cheap pool of labour yet can evade the costs of regular employers.
Like Uber and Deliveroo in the west, China’s outsourcing apps try to avoid being called employers.
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In December, a driver for Alibaba’s Ele.me platform died suddenly while on the job, stirring a social media outcry after Alibaba denied it had a direct labour relationship with the man. (It later admitted it needed to do better, and paid his family compensation of 600,000 yuan.)
The tech giants are in one way correct: The contracts that drivers sign are with third-party outsourcing agencies.
These agencies are not household names, but Shanghai Peiren Enterprise Service Outsourcing Company and Tianjin Woqu Human Resources are behind the success of Alibaba’s Ele.me and Meituan.
Although Ele.me and Meituan have seven million couriers between them, the sector is little regulated. Only at the start of the epidemic last year did the government add “online order delivery workers” to the list of recognised occupations, when the riders were being hailed as heroes for feeding locked-down households.
The government has so far allowed tech companies to experiment and seems to see migrant workers as expendable resources.
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A YEAR FOR POLICY SHIFT
Industry players say this may be the year for a policy shift. Strikes in the delivery sector have increased over the past two years, according to China Labour Bulletin.
Earlier this month, a driver protesting unpaid wages from Alibaba set himself on fire.
There has been some progress: In legal disputes, a high level of management by the platform can be taken as evidence that it has a labour relationship with the driver. In 2018, a Shansong courier who had been injured while driving won a court ruling on this basis.
One might place some of the responsibility on the engineers who maintain the apps. But they too are victims of labour exploitation, working the infamous “996” shift of 9am to 9pm, six days a week.
Like delivery drivers, they have decided such an occupation is, so far, their best option. But a country that prides itself on its tech innovation and its booming economy should be able to provide better choices.
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