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China’s Delivery Drivers Rage Against the Algorithm

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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 three 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 into 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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