Underpaid And Squeezed By Algorithms, Delivery Drivers Strike

Several recent reports have exposed the extreme hardships imposed on Chinese delivery drivers by unforgiving algorithms, merciless delivery companies, and expectant consumers. At NPR this week, Emily Feng shadowed a young courier and examined the demands placed upon him and other drivers:

The delivery workers described grueling routines: 12-hour days, six days a week, under the automated and watchful eye of mobile apps that track how and when they deliver hundreds of packages a day.

Delivery workers are a critical link in China’s on-demand courier services, which ship more than 60 billion packages a year and generate nearly 1% of the country’s annual economic activity.

[…] If Wang fails to garner at least one five-star review a month, he gets slapped with an $8 pay deduction. If someone complains by email, Wang is fined about $300, nearly a week’s wages. Lesser offenses can carry fines of about $30 to $80.

“On those days, it is as if I worked the entire day, delivering 400 packages, for nothing,” he says. [Source]

In September, “Delivery Riders, Trapped In The System,” a long-form investigation by People (Renwu 人物) into the algorithms and managers that govern the lives of China’s 4.6 million delivery workers, went viral. The report detailed a number of abuses. “Meituan navigation told me to drive against traffic once I crossed the road […] If there is a wall, it will tell you to go directly through the wall,” said one driver. Managers threatened workers with double penalties for absenteeism if they didn’t show up for work during a typhoon. “Gamified” performance rankings created Sisyphean tiers by which drivers were ranked and paid in competition with each other. Subsequent public outrage against Ele.me and Meituan, the two delivery giants implicated in the report, caused both companies to tweak their delivery requirements. They put the onus to lessen driver’s burden on consumers by allowing them the option to give drivers more time to make deliveries. “Comprising [sic] the rights of consumers is a solution but it’s not reasonable and cannot solve the fundamental problem,” an e-commerce analyst told The South China Morning Post.

Public sympathy for drivers was already high after their heroic service during China’s lockdown earlier this year. At great risk to their personal health, delivery drivers in Wuhan brought fresh food and vegetables to people confined to their homes throughout the peak of the city’s coronavirus outbreak. During February, couriers delivered over 1,337 tons of necessities in Hubei alone. A recently produced 20-part drama compared the work of Wuhan’s delivery drivers to that of its doctors.

But as the pandemic subsided, and Chinese economic life returned to normal, some drivers felt left behind. In October at The South China Morning Post, Masha Borak wrote about the salary hardships faced by drivers in post-pandemic China:

According to a recent report by the China Post and Express News, more than 75 per cent of 65,000 package-delivery couriers recently surveyed were earning less than 5,000 yuan (US$747) a month, and most lacked access to social insurance. More than half of the respondents also said they work at least 10 hours a day, and around 60 per cent said they take two or fewer days off each month.

[…] Zhang Xuelin, a 38-year-old delivery driver working for Sherpa’s – a food-delivery service that targets foreigners and high-end dining in China – said he could earn up to 6,000 yuan a month in cash tips a decade ago, when mobile payment apps were in their infancy.

“Now that consumers use mobile apps to pay for the orders, the tips are much less,” he said. “Ten years ago, you could expect that tips would be higher than your salary.”[Source]

Delayed payments and deadly accidents have sparked protests and strikes by delivery drivers. China Labour Bulletin has tracked 19 delivery driver deaths since 2018, and documented 33 strikes among couriers and food delivery workers since the beginning of 2020. The strikes have come in the weeks and months before couriers’ busiest time of year, Alibaba’s November 11 “Singles Day” shopping holiday. This year, 3 billion packages were expected to be delivered in China between the 11th and the 16th. One driver told an interviewer, “Our physical strength is limited, and delivering items for a long time without rest is unbearable.”

At The New York Times, Vivian Wang wrote a portrait of one courier’s decision to strike, even as Xinhua called the strikes “fake”:

Then came the virus. As cities locked down, many couriers were unable to work, and franchises struggled to stay afloat. Some folded. Those that did reopen struggled to pay couriers even reduced wages.

That was what happened to Mr. Fang in Nanjing. His local outlet of Best Express, one of the major delivery companies, did not issue $30,000 in wages to eight workers as promised. Mr. Fang said he was owed about $3,000, the equivalent of four or five months’ pay.

In July, the outlet owner promised to pay by August. August came and went.

So the eight couriers, just under half of the station’s employees, went on strike. [Source]

At Rest of World, Meaghan Tobin documented the economics of worker strikes and Chinese society’s growing support for couriers:

Aidan Chau, a researcher at China Labour Bulletin, said the delivery drivers have little recourse when claiming back pay because they don’t have contracts with the local delivery centers. Chau said some workers have been waiting for their back pay for as long as five months. “When the pandemic started, they could possibly accept that their bosses were not paying them, because everyone knew it was a very difficult time, and they thought things would get better,” Chau told Rest of World. “But after the pandemic subsided, they’re still not getting paid.”

[…] The pandemic accelerated a fierce, long-brewing price war between express delivery companies, with drivers getting the squeeze. According to China Merchants Bank, average delivery prices dropped more than 30% just from February to July, as the country emerged from the depths of the pandemic. For years, e-commerce giants have slashed delivery prices to draw more clients, and this year’s delivery fees are half what they were in 2015. The average delivery price per package was nearly 8% lower during the first half of 2020 than during the same period last year. The delivery companies pass the cuts on to workers: local media reports some drivers make as little as $0.10 per package.

[…] The strikes — and the resulting delivery delays — have drawn attention from the Chinese public. More than 13,000 users discussed the strikes on Weibo, and the hashtag “deliveryman strike” had more than 13 million views. While many commenters complained of late orders (“I seem to be back in ancient times waiting for delivery on horseback,” one posted), they also called for support and livable working conditions for the drivers. [Source]


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