In September 2020, China’s People Magazine published an investigation into delivery drivers’ labour conditions that quickly went viral on social media. For six months, journalist Lai Youxuan interviewed dozens of delivery workers across China’s major cities and analysed traffic data. The investigative report showed that the algorithms of delivery apps like Meituan and Ele.me, which were pushing for short delivery times and other requirements, caused drivers to break traffic laws, resulting in traffic accidents, injuries and deaths.
After People Magazine published this story, articles about the poor conditions for Chinese delivery drivers began appearing across Chinese and international media, including in NPR and the South China Morning Post. The issue caught the attention of Chinese regulators, which implemented new guidelines featuring requirements for employers to adjust delivery times, reduce labour intensity, and pay workers a fair wage regardless of algorithmic assessments. Nevertheless, the issue still remains, as shown by recent strikes in the sector.
About People Magazine
China’s People Magazine was founded in late 1979 under state-owned publisher People’s Publishing House. This monthly print magazine was deeply influential in the 1980s, when it started to feature articles rehabilitating well-known figures who had fallen into disgrace during the Cultural Revolution era. Nowadays, People Magazine still reaches a wide audience with a physical circulation of about 50,000 copies, mainly targeting young white-collar workers interested in society, politics and government. It has occasionally produced politically critical content, including a 2020 interview with a Covid-19 whistleblower which was later censored.
Delivery riders, stuck in the system
investigative report by Lai Youxuan, People Magazine, 2020
In the wake of data released by traffic police departments, there has been a discussion about how delivery workers have become a high-risk occupation.
Why is an industry that has created tremendous value in a certain field also creating social problems at the same time? To find the answer to this question, the Renwu magazine team conducted nearly half a year of investigation. Through communication with dozens of delivery riders, people who participate in various links of the delivery chain, and sociologists from across the country, the answer gradually emerged.
This article is quite long. We are trying to encourage more people to think about a question together through a detailed interpretation of a system: In the era of the digital economy, what kind of algorithms should it be?
Another two minutes disappeared from the system.
Ele.me delivery rider Zhu Dahe remembers it clearly: it was a day in October 2019 when he saw an order’s system delivery time, and his hands were sweating while gripping the handlebars. The delivery distance was 2 kilometres, and it had to be delivered within 30 minutes. Having worked as a delivery worker in Beijing for two years, the shortest delivery time for the same distance before was 32 minutes. But from that day on, these two minutes disappeared.
At almost the same time, Meituan delivery riders experienced a similar time loss. A Meituan delivery rider in Chongqing who specialises in long-distance deliveries found that the delivery time for orders of the same distance was reduced from 50 minutes to 35 minutes. His roommate, who is also a delivery rider, had the maximum delivery time within 3 kilometres reduced to 30 minutes.
This is not the first time that time has disappeared from the system.
Jin Zhuangzhuang had worked as a Meituan delivery station manager for three years. He remembers clearly that between 2016 and 2019, he had received notices about acceleration from the Meituan platform three times: In 2016, the longest delivery time for a 3-kilometre delivery distance was 1 hour. In 2017, it was reduced to 45 minutes. In 2018, it was further shortened by 7 minutes and kept at 38 minutes. According to relevant data, in 2019, the average delivery time for a food delivery order in the Chinese industry decreased by 10 minutes compared to three years ago.
The system has the ability to continuously swallow time, which is commendable progress for its creators and a manifestation of the AI intelligent algorithm’s deep learning capabilities. At Meituan, this real-time intelligent delivery system is called “Super Brain.” At Ele.me, it is named “Ark.”
In November 2016, Meituan’s founder Wang Xing said in a media interview that “Our slogan is ‘Meituan Delivery, fast delivery for everything.’ Our average arrival time is 28 minutes, and this is a good manifestation of technology.”
But for delivery riders who put technological progress into practice, this may be crazy and deadly.
In the system’s setting, delivery time is the most important indicator, and exceeding this time is not allowed. Once it happens, it means that delivery riders will receive negative reviews, their income will decrease, and they may even be eliminated. In the Baidu Tieba Forum where delivery riders gather, some riders wrote that delivering food is like racing against the Death, competing with traffic police, and making friends with red lights.
To constantly remind themselves, a delivery rider in Jiangsu changed their social media nickname to “a dog’s head if late delay.” A Shanghai delivery rider living in Songjiang district said that he almost rides against traffic for each order. He had calculated that doing so would save him 5 minutes per delivery. Another delivery rider from Shanghai who works for Ele.me has done a rough calculation and found that if they didn’t break traffic laws, they could only complete half as many deliveries in one day.
Delivery riders can never rely on personal strength to fight against the time allocated by the system, and they can only make up for the time lost via speeding. A Meituan delivery rider told Renwu that the craziest order he ever experienced was to deliver an order within a one-kilometre distance within 20 minutes. Although the distance was not far, he had to pick up the food, wait for its making, and deliver it within 20 minutes. On that day, his speed was so fast that his butt bounced off the seat a few times.
In the eyes of researcher Sun Ping from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, speeding, running red lights, and riding against traffic by food delivery riders are forms of “counter-algorithm” behaviour. She believes that these actions are labour practices that food delivery riders are forced to adopt under the long-term control and training of the system algorithm. The direct consequence of this counter-algorithm behaviour is the sharp increase in the number of traffic accidents experienced by food delivery riders.
Sun Ping began researching the digital labour relationship between food delivery system algorithms and delivery riders in 2017. When discussing the increasing number of traffic accidents with Renwu magazine, she said that shorter delivery times are definitely the most important reason.
The real data strongly corroborates this argument. In the first half of 2017, according to data from the Shanghai Public Security Bureau Traffic Police Corps, on average one delivery rider was injured or died every 2.5 days in Shanghai. In the same year in Shenzhen, 12 delivery riders were injured or died within three months. In the first seven months of 2018, Chengdu traffic police handled nearly 10,000 violation cases by delivery riders, 196 accidents, and 155 injuries or deaths. This means on average, one delivery rider was injured or died every day due to violations. In September 2018, Guangzhou traffic police dealt with nearly 2,000 traffic violation cases by delivery riders. Meituan riders accounted for half of them, and Ele.me ranked second.
The topic “#Food delivery riders have become one of the most dangerous occupations” has appeared on Weibo’s hot search topic list multiple times.
In public reports, specific cases are far more shocking than the data itself.
In February 2018, an Ele.me delivery rider sped on a non-motorized vehicle lane in Shanghai to save time. He hit Li Mouqiu, an expert in emergency medicine in Shanghai and one of the founders of the emergency department at Ruijin Hospital and Huashan Hospital. Li died after being hospitalised for a month. In May 2019, a delivery rider in Jiangxi hit a pedestrian while rushing to make a delivery, leaving the pedestrian in a vegetative state. A month later, a delivery rider in Chengdu ran a red light and hit a Porsche, causing his right leg to be thrown off on the spot. In the same month, a delivery rider in Xuchang, Henan province, was hit while driving against traffic on a motor vehicle lane. He was thrown into the air and spun twice before landing with multiple fractures throughout his body.
Zhu Dahe, who had sweaty hands due to fear of the delivery time, also had an accident. To avoid a bicycle, he fell off his speeding electric bike in the non-motorized vehicle lane. The spicy hot pot he was delivering then flew out. At that time, what arrived in his mind earlier than the physical pain was [thinking]: “Oh no, I’m going to be late.”
To prevent being late and receiving a negative review, he called the customer and asked them to cancel the order. He then paid for that order of spicy hot pot out of his own pocket. “It was too expensive and cost over 80 RMB,” he said, “But it didn’t taste bad, and it filled me up.” He took this accident to heart until now. At the time, he just joined the industry and was inexperienced. A more reasonable solution would have been to pay the customer for the spicy hot pot and ask them to place another order. In this way, he could have at least earned the delivery fee. “It was 6.5 RMB. I remember it very well,” he said.
Vehicle accidents are very common (in the delivery industry). “As long as the food is not spilt, it doesn’t matter how badly someone falls,” Zhu Dahe said. When he’s delivering, he has seen many fellow riders get into traffic accidents, but they usually don’t stop because they can’t afford to delay their delivery.
The experience of Wei Lai, a Meituan delivery rider, confirms this statement.
One afternoon this spring, Wei Lai and another delivery rider who wore the same-coloured uniform were waiting at a crossroads for the traffic light to turn red. Just a few seconds before it turned green, the other rider hurried to run the red light. At that moment, a car sped towards them. Both the rider and their vehicle flew into the air. The other rider lost their life instantly. Wei Lai said that he did not stop when he saw his colleague lying in the middle of the road covered in blood and flesh. His delivery order was soon to become overdue. At that moment, a new order came in from a familiar female voice – “Dispatch, from XX to XX, please reply after the beep to confirm receipt.”
According to the system’s setting, it starts running once the delivery riders reply to confirm their receipt.
At the ArchSummit Global Architect Summit in 2019, Wang Shengyao, a senior algorithm expert in the Meituan delivery technology team, introduced the basic operation of this intelligent system.
From the moment when the customer places an order, the system determines which delivery rider to dispatch depending on their convenience, location, and direction. Orders are typically dispatched in the form of 3-way or 5-way slips, and each order has two task points: picking up the meal and delivering the meal. If a delivery rider has taken five orders and ten tasks, the system will design an optimal delivery plan among 110,000 possible route planning options. The system can solve thousands of orders for thousands of people per second.
But in reality, all it takes to shatter this optimum is just heavy rain.
Riders all have a very inconsistent attitude towards rain. They like rain because orders increase on rainy days. But if the rain is too heavy, the system can easily overload and riders will more easily have accidents.
A Hunan Meituan rider Gengzi once experienced a terrible rainy night. The rain had been pouring down all day, and orders kept pouring in. This caused the system to overload. Every rider at the station was carrying more than ten orders at the same time. Their boxes and handles were packed to the brim. Gengzi remembers that he could only place his feet lightly on the edge of the pedals. He rode while staring at the several boxed meals stacked in the middle of his shins to avoid them being crushed during the ride.
The road was too slippery, and he fell several times. He quickly got up and continued delivering. It was until 2:30 am that he finally finished all the orders he had. A few days later, he received his monthly salary slip. Unexpectedly, the number was much lower than usual- The reason was simple: on that rainy day, many of the orders he delivered were overdue, so he had his salary reduced.
It wasn’t just Gengzi who had his salary deducted, but also the manager of the delivery station.
“(I am) a person who relied on data,” Jin Zhuangzhuang, a station manager of the Meituan delivery station, called himself as such. For a delivery station, the most important data includes the number of orders received, the overdue rate, the negative review rate, and the complaint rate. Among them, the overdue rate is the most important one because many negative reviews and complaints are about overdue deliveries.
Usually, the delivery riders’ overdue rate cannot exceed 3%. If they fail to meet this standard, the station’s rating will be downgraded, and the delivery fee per order of the entire station will also decrease. The income of all people including the station manager, human resource manager, quality control officer, everyone else associated with the station, as well as channel managers and regional managers related to that station, will be affected.
At the end of each year, the station also faces an assessment from the Meituan and Ele.me platforms. The bottom 10% of delivery stations in each region will risk being eliminated.
Under this evaluation system of the platform, overdue deliveries not only result in income loss but also cause secondary psychological harm to delivery riders.
“He would become a thorn in the teams,” Sun Ping said. He said if the delay was serious, not only (the rider) would be penalised heavily, but the entire team’s reputation would also be affected. If a rider holds everyone back, the station manager will look for him, [RL1] then the department head, then the district head and various other people will look for him. No one will like him.
This can bring huge mental pressure on delivery riders. Zhu Dahe, who fell on the road with a spicy hot pot, told Renwu that in his first few months of being a delivery rider, he spent every day in frustration.
Zhu Dahe comes from a small place. He is not familiar with the roads of Beijing, let alone the huge traffic flow on the roads. He followed the rules nervously but was deducted money every day because of overdue delivery. This made him feel incompetent. “Isn’t it said that delivery riders can earn over 10,000 RMB (per month)? Isn’t it said that anyone can do delivery work? Why can’t I do it well?” he said. He said that he seemed not to be cut out to be a delivery rider.
Later, as he became more skilled at riding his electric bike and more familiar with the roads, he transformed from a novice into an expert in navigating the traffic time, and his feeling of incompetence gradually disappeared. Compared to being late for deliveries, riding against traffic was nothing. He said that when he rode against traffic with other delivery riders, he even experienced a sense of smoothness.
Nowadays, under normal circumstances, Zhu Dahe rarely exceeds the time limit. However, extreme and harsh weather remains the curse he cannot escape. During these times, the system which is out of control would bring him into trouble: burdened with an excessive number of orders, he completely lost control over delivery time and faced penalties for being late. He was not even allowed to take leave.
In August 2019, Typhoon Lekima hit Shanghai and an Ele.me delivery rider died of an electric shock while delivering in the rain. Afterwards, a WeChat group chat screenshot from a delivery station was circulated on social media. In the screenshot, the station manager mentioned everyone and stated that no one was allowed to take leave for the next three days. If someone couldn’t be found at work during those three days, they would be punished with double the normal penalty for being absent. The response from the delivery riders to the manager’s instruction was a long string of “1,” suggesting that they had received the message.
This screenshot sparked a huge public controversy. Some netizens questioned: “Why can Fresh Hema, KFC, and McDonald’s suspend delivery during the typhoon season, but not the general food delivery platform?”
In response to this, Meituan station manager Jin Zhuangzhuang could only express helplessness. Every time in heavy rain, delivery riders would come to him to ask for leave. Their reasons were of various types, such as flat tires, falling on the road, or family emergencies. But in the face of a large number of incoming orders and for the sake of the station’s data performance, he had no choice but to enforce a rule that, except for illness, death and some other emergencies, riders cannot take leave during harsh weather, and will be fined for doing so.
Heavy rainy days were also the most exhausting time for Jin Zhuangzhuang. He must sit in front of the computer at the station and monitor the location of each rider, the number of orders they take, and the time it takes them to deliver. At his station, Meituan regulates that each rider can only take a maximum of 12 orders at a time. If the order number exceeds 12, the system will stop dispatching orders. However, during severe weather or major holidays, this number is far from enough to handle the huge influx of orders. At these times, the system is also most likely to crash: some riders take double the number of orders; some riders have almost no orders; some riders receive orders with opposite directions from their current delivery direction; and the allotted time of some closer orders are longer than those orders that are farther away.
At this point, Jin Zhuangzhuang needs to play another role: a manual dispatcher. By taking this role, he enters the system and moves A rider’s order to B rider to balance the capacity of delivery. Although the system has a maximum limit of 12 orders, manual re-assignment is not restricted to this number. As long as there is someone to re-dispatch, the number of orders for each rider can reach a very alarming figure. One rider can take up to 26 orders at the same time. Once, more than 30 riders in a distribution station processed 1000 orders in 3 hours, and one rider was allotted 16 orders during peak hours in a county with a population of 500,000.
An Ele.me station manager told Renwu that this kind of manual intervention is not to save the delivery riders but to maximise the potential and speed of each of them.
When the delivery rider’s potential is maximised, but if it still doesn’t work, Jin Zhuangzhuang will go out and deliver the orders himself. At most, he once took 15 orders at a time (when the system was overwhelmed by the orders). He first let the delivery riders endure for a period of time. When they could not take it anymore, he could only apply to Meituan to limit the area to deliver the order. “After 2018, the system no longer allows our station for such applications. No matter how many orders there are, they have to be delivered. He said that when he delivered orders at the peak time, by the end of it, he was just numb. He was purely running on instinct, devoid of any human emotional response,” he said.
Last year, Jin Zhuangzhuang left this industry because his family got sick. He said that he would not come back again. Recently, a friend of his wanted to take over a food delivery station but was also dissuaded by him. “The time pressure and data pressure that this industry puts on people are beyond your imagination,” he said. During heavy rain in the south this summer, Jin Zhuangzhuang felt fortunate that he had left the industry. But at the same time, he worried and wondered how many stations would be overwhelmed by excessive orders and how many delivery riders would need to work hard to meet the data requirements.
In order to complete her research project, Sun Ping has interacted with nearly 100 delivery riders over the past four years. Many of them have complained about the delivery routes given by the system.
To help riders focus more on delivery, the intelligence system of the delivery platform has maximised its control over human brainpower by planning multiple orders for pickups and deliveries and providing delivery route navigation for each order. Riders do not need to think for themselves. They just need to follow the system’s prompts to complete the task, while also taking on the risk of being misled.
Sometimes, the navigation system displays a straight-line route. One rider once angrily told Sun Ping, “The algorithm predicts the delivery time based on straight-line distance, but our delivery does not work like that. We need to take detours and wait for traffic lights… Yesterday, I delivered an order that the system said was five kilometres away, but I actually rode seven kilometres. The system considers us as helicopters, but we’re not.”
Sometimes, the navigation system also suggests routes that require riding against traffic.
In October 2019, a delivery rider from Guizhou named Xiaodao posted on Zhihu that Meituan’s navigation would guide riders to ride against traffic. In his communication with Renwu magazine, he said that he had become a delivery rider just for half a year but had already encountered several occasions of being directed to ride against traffic. One time when he was delivering to a hospital, while the normal ride required a U-turn, the Meituan’s navigation route suggested he cross the street and ride against traffic. According to the screenshot he provided, the route that required riding against traffic was nearly 2 kilometres long.
“There are more impressive cases,” said Xiaodao, “in some places where it was inconvenient to ride against traffic. If there was an overhead pedestrian bridge, the navigation system would direct riders to cross it, including those bridges that do not allow electric bikes. If there were also walls, the navigation would direct riders to go straight through them.”
In Beijing, short-video blogger Director Cao also encountered the same situation. To gain different professional experience, she worked as a Meituan delivery rider for less than a week. To her surprise, when she accepted an order, the navigation system showed a walking mode–there is no distinction between going forward and backwards–and the delivery time provided by the system was calculated based on the shortest route. This included a significant number of road sections where she had to ride against traffic.
In the eyes of Xiaodao, whether it is a straight or reverse route, the system’s goal has been achieved. The system calculates the delivery fee based on the distance and time calculated by the navigation system. If the distance is shorter and the time is shorter, it will attract more users to the food delivery platform and also reduce the delivery cost.
At the end of 2017, in an article introducing the optimisation and upgrade of the intelligent delivery system, the Meituan technology team also mentioned cost. The article pointed out that the optimised algorithm allowed the platform to reduce 19% of its operational losses. It means that now, four delivery riders could deliver the same number of orders that previously required five. The cost appeared finally at the end of the article. The article concluded by emphasising that efficiency, experience, and cost would become the core indicators pursued by the platform.
In reality, Meituan has gained great benefits from this optimisation and upgrade.
According to the data released by Meituan, in the third quarter of 2019, the number of orders for Meituan’s food delivery service reached 2.5 billion, with revenue per order increasing by 0.04 RMB compared to the same period in 2018. While at the same time, the cost per order decreased by 0.12 RMB year-on-year, which helped Meituan earn an additional 400 million RMB in the third quarter of 2019.
However, behind the platform’s huge profits, there is a decrease in personal income for delivery riders. Xiaodao said that whenever the navigation system shows a route that goes against traffic, he faces a dilemma: either giving up on going the wrong way and taking a longer route with the risk of running out of time or following the navigation system and taking on safety risks. Regardless of which option, he ends up earning less money.
Each delivery rider has to weigh the trade-off between safety and income. As an outsider participating in this industry temporarily, Director Cao pointed out the dilemma faced by delivery riders. All food delivery platforms are pursuing profit maximisation. In the end, they shifted the risks onto riders with the least bargaining power.
In the communication with Renwu, several delivery riders had this same comment: “The platforms are not worried about not having riders. If you don’t do it, someone else will.”
Before becoming a Meituan delivery rider, Afei worked as a KFC delivery rider, where he could only make a maximum of six to seven hundred deliveries a month due to the restrictions of the shop. As the brand was able to offer a high delivery fee of 12 to 13 RMB to the delivery companies, the delivery person’s share of the fee has always remained at 9 RMB. He described the job as “following the rules most strictly.” But the income was not high, and he could only earn a little over 5,000 RMB at most each month. Eventually, attracted by the prospect of earning over 10,000 RMB a month as a food delivery person, he decided to leave KFC and start delivering food for platforms.
In Meituan and Ele.me, delivery riders are divided into two categories: exclusive riders and crowdsourced riders.
Exclusive riders are full-time riders subordinated to the delivery station, with a base salary and designated working hours. They receive orders allotted by the system and are assessed based on their good review rate and on-time rate. In comparison, crowdsourced riders are part-time riders with a very low entry threshold. With just one person, one vehicle, and one app, they can start working immediately once their registration is approved. They do not have a base salary and can take and reject orders freely, but they may be restricted from taking orders if they repeatedly reject system-allocated orders. Crowdsourced riders are not affected by negative reviews and complaints, but they may face heavier penalties for being late. For example. they will have half of their delivery fee deducted if they are one second late. Whether they are exclusive or crowdsourced, none of the delivery riders have an employment relationship with the food delivery platform.
In the end, Afei chose to join Meituan and became a part-time delivery rider. It was around 2017 when he worked about 9 hours a day and was dedicated to long-distance deliveries. He could earn around 10,000 RMB a month, and at most he earned 15,000 RMB in a single month. The low threshold and high income (of being a delivery rider) are considered to be important reasons why the food delivery platforms are not worried about a shortage of riders.
However, from the perspectives of sociologists, the phenomenon that food delivery riders earn over 10,000 RMB a month only exists during the early stages of the platform’s development. Having conducted long-term research on the labour processes of delivery riders in the Wuhan area, Zheng Guanghuai’s team at the School of Sociology at Central China Normal University found that as platform subsidies end and more riders join, earning over 10,000 RMB a month is becoming an elusive dream.
The research report released by this team shows that only 2.15% of food delivery riders earn a monthly income of more than 10,000 RMB, while 53.18% of respondents said that their current income cannot meet the ends of their family expenses.
Afei told Renwu that after he worked as a food delivery rider in Beijing for a while, due to personal reasons, he moved to Chongqing. His income decreased, especially after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic when more and more people joined the food delivery industry. It was once even difficult for him to get orders. His monthly income sometimes was less than 7,000 RMB.
As shown by Meituan Riders’ Employment Report during 2019 and 2020 Pandemic released by Meituan Research Institute, during the pandemic, the number of new registered riders on the Meituan platform reached 336,000. Among the sources of new riders, the top one is factory workers, followed by salespeople.
As for when one can earn the most, according to Afei, it will be only under extremely cold or hot weather. Because during such times, most people are unwilling to go out.
According to public statements from food delivery platforms, when estimating delivery time, the time spent waiting for elevators will be considered a key factor.
In an interview with 36Kr.com, He Renqing, the head of the delivery algorithm team at Meituan, also emphasised elevators: Meituan’s system pays special attention to the time it takes for delivery riders to move between different floors, and even studies their speed for deliveries to low-rise and high-rise buildings.
Nevertheless, the complexity of reality far exceeds the predictive ability of AI. “Waiting for elevators is a real pain point for us, a really big one,” says Afei, who can no longer make over 10,000 RMB a month.
In many delivery riders’ impression, waiting for hospital elevators is the hardest.
During his four years as a delivery rider, the scariest experience that Afei encountered was at the Third Hospital of Peking University. It was during the lunch peak hour when he took seven or eight orders to deliver to the surgical building of the Third Hospital of Peking University. “It was super scary,” he said, “I remember very clearly, the elevator entrance, the delivered food, the patients, doctors, and family members were all squeezed together. That scene was quite spectacular.” He waited for several rounds of elevator before finally squeezing onto the elevator, where everyone was stuck together and couldn’t even catch their breath. That day, after delivering this order, the other six orders of Afei’s were all overdue.
Later, he moved to Chongqing, but elevators remained a source of ultimate frustration for him.
For example, the internet-famous Hongding International Building is surreal. It has in total 48 floors, all filled with small studios. “Just imagine, every floor has about 30 or 40 studios.” Despite the building having seven or eight elevators, waiting for an elevator during peak hours is no different from queuing to enter a tourist attraction. Waiting could take up to around half an hour.
Another example is the Chongqing Global Financial Centre. This building has 74 floors but only has a freight elevator available for delivery riders. “This may first be because elevator resources are already limited during peak dining hours; secondly it could also be due to the concern about the presentation of the office building (so that only one elevator is accessible for delivery riders),” Afei analysed. “We can only wait outside the elevator. People inside rumble down, and people outside rumble in. It takes more than ten minutes for the elevator to go up, and another ten more minutes for it to come down after delivering the food. How can it be possible for us not to exceed the required short time limit in this situation?”
Many delivery riders in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Chongqing, Hunan, and other places have told Renwu that it is extremely common for office buildings to prohibit them from taking passenger elevators.
On 11 July 2020, Director Cao released a video of her experience as a food delivery rider. As shown in the video, the topic of SKP mall in Beijing refusing delivery riders’ entry became a hot search topic on Weibo and sparked a discussion on discrimination at work across the internet. In Director Cao’s view, SKP is only the tip of the iceberg in the systematic discrimination against the service industry of food delivery. In that less-than-10-minute-long video, there was also an elevator that went unnoticed.
“I remember it quite well,” Director Cao said. “When I went to pick up the food, I found that there were many food shops in the building that mainly relied on delivery business. There were other elevators in the building, but the security guard would not let delivery riders use them. Only one elevator was open for delivery riders to use. As a novice, it took her a lot of time just to find this elevator.” Then she joined dozens of other riders to wait in line for the elevator. All the delivery riders automatically lined up in two rows, leaving the middle open for the riders coming out of the elevator. That day, it took her more than ten minutes just to wait for the elevator.
In addition to office buildings, some high-end residential areas with elevators are also considered areas to avoid by delivery riders. In those places, to access the elevator, one needs to swipe a card. Customers are often unwilling to come downstairs, and they ask us to stand in the elevator while they press the buttons upstairs. “But not all of us can actually get in,” Afei said, when encountering such customers, many exclusive delivery riders will just climb more than 20 floors to avoid a negative rating. Afei, who worked as a crowdsourced delivery rider is not afraid of a negative rating. His solution is: “The customer lives on the 14th floor and asked me to climb the stairs. I thought that was too much, so we compromised that I climbed 7 floors while he came down 7 floors. This was more reasonable.”
At the elevator entrance, Afei has seen countless delivery riders go on with emotional breakdowns, crying and arguing because they were so close to completing the delivery. Once one squeezes in, one could deliver. But in reality, riders could only wait at the elevator entrance. “You can’t do anything. You just stand and wait.”
To avoid going over the allotted delivery time, some delivery riders will click “delivered” while waiting for the elevator, but this is not allowed by the system. If a customer complains about the delivery being marked as delivered before it was, the rider will be fined 500 RMB, said a Meituan delivery rider from Gansu to Renwu.
“On this point, Ele.me is slightly more humane,” said a delivery rider from Guizhou. According to him, in the Ele.me system, there is a “reporting” function. When the delivery rider arrives at the building and needs to wait for the elevator for a minute or two, they can click the “reporting” button to record the time they arrived at the building, and then click the “delivered” button after finishing the delivery and going downstairs.
Zhengzhou delivery rider Zhang Hu has worked as an exclusive rider for Ele.me and as a crowdsourced rider for Meituan. Comparing his work experience at both platforms, he feels that Meituan is indeed more aggressive. Meituan delivery riders are like machines running for orders. Ele.me does not have as large a local market share and does not have as many orders as Meituan, so it tends to be relatively more gentle and more polite.
Real-world data can also support his judgement.
According to a survey by the mobile internet data monitoring platform Trustdata, in the first half of 2019, Meituan had a share of 64.6% in the national food delivery market share. Specifically, in terms of order volume, Meituan riders took 20 more orders on average per day than those from Ele.me.
No matter how much effort the riders put in to speed up delivering the orders, the platform still feels it is not fast enough. Zhang Hu could not help but complain about Meituan. He eventually chose to leave Ele.me and join Meituan, because in Zhengzhou Meituan can provide him with an unimaginable order volume.
This is also the reason why Afei chose to join Meituan eventually. Although his income declined during the pandemic, his mood was still not bad. During that time, many residential communities and office buildings did not allow him to enter, so he no longer had to compete with elevators. However, with the easing of the pandemic, more and more residential areas and office buildings lifted their bans. The pain point of elevators began to hurt again.
When the new round of wars in the elevator began, Director Cao completed the final edit of the professional experience video for food delivery riders. She inserted the scene of waiting for the elevator into the main film. In mid-July, when she recalled that scene to Renwu again, she said that at that moment, she felt like a worker waiting at the elevator entrance.
Waiting at the restaurant’s entrance
In 2019, Li Lei, who lived in Zhengzhou, left Ele.me to join Meituan. He transitioned from being a site manager to a business development personnel. His main responsibility was to develop more cooperation with businesses for the delivery station. In order to establish partnerships with more popular businesses for the delivery station he managed, he often went door-to-door to maintain relationships. During peak dining hours on weekends, he would even bring a chair and sit outside the restaurant. This was not to expand cooperation but to urge the restaurant to serve the meal faster.
The system constantly optimises and upgrades itself in the name of intelligence, shortening delivery times again and again. But the problem of slow meal serving remains a difficult one to solve. Meituan’s senior algorithm expert, Wang Shengyao, once stated in a public article that even by analysing historical completed orders, it is still difficult to obtain accurate information on the meal serving time. As long as the restaurant meal serving time is uncertain, this random variable will always exist.
However, when it comes to the quantitative aspect of delivery time, the only ones who bear this variable are the delivery riders.
According to delivery riders’ narratives, there are many reasons for slow meal serving. Some reputed restaurants are popular and have a booming business. During peak dining hours, while eat-in orders are already overwhelmed and unable to cope, they are still reluctant to pause their orders for delivery.
Some small local restaurants are run by laid-back owners who do not have a strong sense of time. Sometimes the boss has just returned from buying ingredients outside when the rider arrives to pick up the food. In addition, some restaurants, especially noodle shops, purposely wait until the delivery riders arrive to then make the food to ensure its quality.
The situation can be even more challenging when it comes to the “three big difficulties”: grilled fish, stewed soup, and barbecue. One delivery rider told Renwu, “Last time, I received an order for stewed soup. I had already arrived at the restaurant, but they hadn’t even started stewing it. I waited there for 40 minutes until it was done.” Another delivery rider just went crazy, shouting “Oh gosh hurry up and stir fry!” However, the restaurant owners remained calm and unconcerned. “Indeed, they were not worried at all, as long as they received the money (from the order). The fines for exceeding the delivery time would not go to them,” he said.
“The problem of slow meal serving is unsolvable,” said Jin Zhuangzhuang, a former Meituan delivery station manager. In the set evaluation system of the platform, restaurants can give negative reviews and complaints about delivery riders, but riders do not have the authority to evaluate merchants. Sometimes, delivery riders even have to take the blame for the restaurants, such as when the food is too spicy, the salt is too little, or the vinegar is forgotten. These complaints about restaurants often appear in the delivery riders’ negative review sections. Many delivery riders have appealed to the system about this, but none have been successful.
To solve this problem, delivery riders have to find a way by themselves. According to Jin Zhuangzhuang, for small restaurants with slow meal serving, riders need to build relationships with them by often visiting, sharing cigarettes, chatting with the owners, and joking around with the boss. “In the end, they will help me cut in line.” For large businesses, riders need to build a good relationship with the receptionist girl [RL1] or packager. “If you chat with them more, they will use the intercom to urge the restaurant to speed up. This is always helpful,” he said.
However, this does not solve the problem fundamentally, and the conflicts between delivery riders and restaurant staff continue to occur frequently. Due to this kind of food delivery issue, a delivery rider in Jinan once had a big fight with a staff member at a Heytea shop. In Wuhan, a delivery rider stabbed a restaurant staff member during a dispute. The latter passed away despite efforts to save their life.
Delivery riders have even resorted to situations when people call the police because of the conflicts that arise between delivery riders and restaurant staff over waiting time. Delivery riders have witnessed such situations too many times. As for how to solve this problem, one delivery rider suggests extending the delivery time, so that everyone won’t be in such a rush.
However, in reality, delivery times are getting shorter and shorter. Among the various demands and pressures faced by delivery riders: restaurant merchants, one of the main culprits that consume their time, also play an important role.
During the process of negotiating cooperation with restaurant merchants, Li Lei found that they talked mostly about the speed of the riders. As long as the riders’ speed did not meet the expectations of the merchants, they would ask Li Lei to replace the delivery riders or terminate the cooperation. Usually, there are two delivery stations from the same platform near popular shopping areas, and merchants can choose which station to work with themselves. As for the cooperation, Li Lei said that they simply depend on, first, the delivery capacity of the station, and second, the speed of the riders arriving at the restaurant.
To win over restaurants with large order volumes, Li Lei would go to the delivery station to supervise the riders and urge them to be faster and faster. However, if the rider exceeds the delivery time due to the slow meal serving of the restaurant, and this affects the station’s data, all he can do is negotiate or go to the restaurant himself. But not everyone can do this. Being able to urge the restaurant to speed up depends on one’s personal relationship with the staff.
Sitting at the restaurant’s entrance, Li Lei stares fixedly at the screen of the machine that receives the orders from the delivery platform. He cannot afford to lose focus even for a moment. As soon as an order comes in, he announces loudly, “We’ve got an order from Meituan, from Meituan!”
“We have to beat our competitors right from the start,” he said.
Peppa Pig and Coca-Cola.
Because of a conflict with a customer, Meituan delivery rider Xiaolin discovered a secret hidden within the system: the delivery time displayed on the customer’s side was different from the time displayed on the rider’s side.
At that time, he had just started working as a Meituan crowdsourced delivery rider. One time, he received an order and had just arrived at the restaurant when he was bombarded with questions from the customer, “Why haven’t you delivered to me yet? You’re already way overdue.” Xiaolin thought that the customer was being unreasonable because there were still almost 10 minutes left until the delivery time displayed on his phone. Later in his delivery, he and the customer got into an argument about the delivery time again. They both took out their phones, and it turned out that the expected delivery time displayed on the customer’s end was 10 minutes earlier than the required delivery time displayed on the rider’s end.
Since discovering this secret, Xiaolin has been calling Meituan customer service every month. It has been nearly four years now. Every time he speaks with a different customer service representative, but the response is always the same: explain to the customer that it is only the expected delivery time.
This is not only Xiaolin’s personal experience. Many other delivery riders also mentioned this issue to Renwu magazine. In their opinion, this is a way for the system to please and retain customers, and this is also one of the important reasons that lead to conflicts between customers and delivery riders.
In the book Consumer Behavior: Insight into Chinese Consumers, scholar Lu Taihong points out that the convenience provided by the digital age has made consumers increasingly picky. They place more emphasis on service quality and product experience, but they are less loyal to products and brands and are always ready to switch suppliers. Therefore, compared to the past, they have a greater influence and dominance in the market.
In the face of this influence, food delivery platforms that focus on user volume and order volume have also built a power structure through algorithms. In this system, customers have become the topmost presence and possess supreme power.
“Customers can make mistakes. Customers sometimes really cannot be reasoned with.”
Regarding this topic, Wang Bing, a delivery rider in Gansu, has a lot to say. Many people didn’t even know where they lived. They wrote room 801 when they lived in room 804 or wrote north gate when they lived in the south gate. Some customers forgot that they placed an order and called the next day asking, “Where is my meal?” Others didn’t even check the address when they placed an order. “I realised that the address is incorrect and it’s in another province when I accepted the order…” But customers do not have to pay for their mistakes. If an order is delayed, it’s still the delivery rider who gets punished.
As a sociologist who has long been researching the career dilemma of food delivery riders, Sun Ping also discussed this supreme power of customers in a research report. During the delivery process, customers can know everything about the rider: their real name, phone number, on-time delivery rate, times that they have received tips, pick-up time, delivery route, and how long it will take to arrive. During an order, customers also have the right to cancel the order.
“They can see everything, all the processes, but we don’t know who they are. Once there’s a problem, we can’t cancel the order as they can,” said one delivery rider. They complained to Sun Ping and shared his experience of having an order cancelled on him:
“I had two orders in my hand. One was 1.5 kilometres away with 45 minutes left; the other was 3 kilometres away with 20 minutes left. I delivered the farther one first. The customer who was 1.5 kilometres away became angry because he saw on GPS that I passed by his house but didn’t deliver his food. He was very angry. He cancelled the order and even complained to the platform about me…”
In Renwu’s investigation, some delivery riders also shared similar experiences. One day, a customer asked the rider after receiving their order, “Aren’t you supposed to only deliver my order?”
The increasingly faster delivery speed and the complete bias of the evaluation system, coupled with the system’s indulgence, have made customers increasingly impatient.
A Shanghai resident named Jingjing admits that he has been spoiled by the system. On normal days, he is busy with work and doesn’t cook, so he relies almost entirely on food delivery to fill his stomach. He often orders from a nearby light meal shop. He recalled that it used to take about 45 minutes for him from placing the order to eating the first cherry tomato in the Caesar salad. To kill time while waiting, he usually watches a 45-minute TV drama. Recently, the waiting time has been kept at 26 minutes. But not long ago, once the delivery time exceeded 30 minutes, he became intolerant and made five phone calls to rush the order.
In 2017, the French research institute Ipsos conducted a survey on impatient consumers in 12 provinces and cities in China. The results showed that the development of mobile technology has made consumers increasingly impatient in all aspects, especially in economically developed regions and among young people. Among them, consumers in Beijing were the most impatient.
Faced with increasingly impatient customers, delivery riders have to come up with all sorts of methods to appease them.
Speaking about this, Wang Bing also has a lot to say. In situations where delivery times for orders in his hand are similar, he will choose to deliver the more expensive ones first, because customers who pay more are usually more prone to getting angry and not listening to explanations. “They may suddenly get upset and demand a refund. For an order of more than 100 RMB, how can I afford to compensate every day?” he said.
In addition, the delivery riders will try their best to meet customers’ demands beyond food delivery, such as buying cigarettes or water, or bringing a razor to an internet cafe. For a while, due to the influence of Douyin (TikTok), some customers would ask Wang Bing to draw a small Peppa Pig for their delivery, and they would give him a negative review if he didn’t draw it. Wang Bing was very angry, but he had to draw it. He bought a sheet of craft paper, drew a Peppa Pig, and even wrote “Are you stupid?”
Delivery is a customer-centred social performance. In her research report, Sun Ping referred to the behaviour of delivery riders to please customers and strive for five-star ratings as emotional labour. In her view, this part of the labour is often ignored, but its toll and depletion on delivery riders are far greater than physical labour.
In her interview with Renwu, she mentioned the most memorable delivery rider for her. He has had his bike stolen twice in three days and had his battery stolen three times. As he spoke, he began to cry. He said, “The platform requires us to say, ‘Wish you a happy meal.’ We don’t know each other. I came from the countryside and used to work in the fields. I feel embarrassed to say that and to ask people to give me a five-star rating. How can I, as a grown man, ask for that?”
In an interview with Jiemian News about the incident in the SKP shopping mall, Associate Professor Shen Yang from the Department of Public Economics and Social Policy at Shanghai Jiao Tong University stated that although food delivery riders may have a monthly salary of over 10,000 RMB, they are still suffered from in the inequality of social class. They earn more money under the condition of sacrificing their time and health. They have to work harder in terms of both physical and emotional labour to get more pay.
Wang Bing is still developing new methods to appease customers. During the summer, many people would order a cup of Coke with their meal. However, this summer has seen a lot of rain. He often falls off his vehicle while rushing to complete deliveries. When his vehicle falls, the Coke is usually split and ruined. If he goes back to the restaurant to get another one, not only does he have to pay for it himself, but the order will also inevitably be late. To avoid customers getting angry, he always keeps a bottle of Coke in his delivery box. If a customer’s Coke spills, he would find a spot where there is no one, pour the spare Coke into the original cup and wipe the rim a few times, leaving no trace. He thinks this method is excellent.
Meanwhile, on several legal consultation websites, some anxious customers also emerged. Someone posted a question asking if they would be held legally responsible for urging a food delivery rider and causing them to have an accident. A lawyer replied to the question, saying that they have no responsibility.
Recently, Meituan and Ele.me announced their financial reports for the second quarter of 2020. During this quarter, Ele.me achieved profitability per order, while Meituan achieved a net profit of 2.2 billion RMB, a year-on-year increase of 95.5%. The takeaway business was the biggest contributor to Meituan’s profitability.
On 24 August 2020, the stock price of Meituan also reached a new high, with a market capitalisation exceeding 200 billion USD. It became the fifth-largest market capitalisation company on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
In this half-year-long investigation, Renwu magazine contacted nearly 30 delivery riders, and one term that they frequently mentioned was “one cent.”
A Meituan rider from Hunan said, “If our on-time delivery rate is below 98%, we will be fined one cent per order, and if it is below 97%, we will be fined two cents per order. Isn’t this forcing us to speed up? After all, one cent in each order means a lot to us.”
An Ele.me delivery rider in Shanghai said that the minimum delivery fee for Ele.me is 4.5 RMB, and the more they deliver, the higher the fee they receive per delivery. “Sometimes, an extra one cent makes a big touching difference. For me, there is a noticeable difference between 4.9 RMB and 5 RMB,” the driver said.
To keep this one cent, delivery riders not only need to run faster but also need to run more.
This is also what the system hopes to see, as there is another hidden secret in the system: a game about ranks.
Both Meituan and Ele.me have set up a point-based ranking system for their delivery riders. The more orders they deliver, the higher their on-time delivery rate and customer satisfaction score, the higher points they will get. With higher points, their ranks increase, and they earn more rewards. The system even packages this evaluation system into a game experience of levelling up and fighting monsters. Riders in different ranks have different titles. For example, in Meituan, these titles range from ordinary, bronze, silver, gold, diamond, and king.
A Meituan crowdsourced delivery rider from a city in southeast China shared the specific ranking requirements: If a rider completes 140 valid orders within a week with a 97% on-time rate will make them a Silver Rider. They will receive an additional weekly bonus of 140 RMB. If they complete 200 valid orders with a 97% on-time rate, they will become a Gold Rider and receive an additional weekly bonus of 220 RMB at Ele.me, the number of orders is directly linked to the delivery fee. If a rider completes up to 500 orders per month, the delivery fee is 5 RMB per order; if they complete 500 to 800 orders, the delivery fee will be 5.5 RMB per order; if they complete 800 to 1000 orders, the delivery fee will be 6 RMB per order… and so on. In the rules of this game, points will be reset on a weekly or monthly basis.
In the research report Orders and Labor: Exploring Algorithms and Labor in China’s Delivery Platform Economy, Sun Ping pointed out that in addition to punishment for exceeding the time limit, the system also uses this gamified evaluation approach to drag many delivery riders into an endless cycle. “They hope that we can work day and night,” a rider told her. But they cannot escape this cycle: “I already became a Black Gold Knight last month. If I want to maintain my status, I still need 832 points, and then there is still a lot of work to do.”
The higher the rank, the greater the pressure for riders to maintain their rank. In Sun Ping’s perspective, gamification not only potentially leads to addiction, but also combines riders’ self-value realisation with capital management in a clever way. The gamified facade of the system provides a widespread, internalised, and reasonable reasoning for algorithmic exploitation.
According to the 2020 First Half Year Employment Report for Delivery Riders released by Meituan, the total number of Meituan’s delivery riders has reached 2.952 million. The official website of Ele.me’s “Fengniao” instant delivery official website shows that the number of their delivery riders is 3 million. In the face of the survival of nearly 6 million delivery riders in the system, Zheng Guanghuai, a sociologist at Central China Normal University, proposed the concept of “downloaded labour.”
In the investigative report Survey of Deliverymen and Food Delivery Riders in Wuhan: Platform Labor and Downloaded Labor, Professor Zheng Guanghuai’s team provided an in-depth elaboration of this concept:
Delivery workers work by downloading apps. On the surface, these apps are just production tools that assist their work, but in reality, the workers are downloading a sophisticated labour control model. Under this model, the workers’ innate subjectivity is fully shaped and even replaced. They seem to work in a freer way, while at the same time, they are subjected to deeper control.
The platform creates a “platform labourer” through the use of downloaded labour. According to Zheng Guanghuai’s team, this labour model is characterised by strong attraction, weak contracts, high supervision, and low resistance.
The medium that assists the system in completing downloaded labour is the riders’ own mobile phone, their most important working tool. In public reports, food delivery platforms have been trying to help delivery riders get rid of their dependence on their phones.
“We are afraid that the riders would have accidents when they want to accept orders on the road,” said He Renqing, the head of the delivery algorithm team at Meituan. In an interview with 36Kr.com in April 2018, He specifically mentioned that the most difficult problem for Meituan is preventing riders from looking at their phones while riding.
To address this issue, Meituan spent 7 months developing a Bluetooth earphone with a built-in intelligent voice interaction system. According to He Renqing, this earphone is windproof, waterproof, noise-reducing, and intelligent. Delivery riders can complete all operations by speaking while wearing it. This ensures that they can be free from using their phones while delivering food.
But in reality, none of the Meituan delivery riders with whom Renwu spoke has received or used this intelligent Bluetooth earphone, nor has any rider been able to completely avoid using their phone while delivering food.
Although Director Cao only experienced the life of a delivery rider for a few days, she still has a lingering fear of being dominated by her phone. “You’re following the navigation, but the system keeps reminding you that ‘there’s a new order on the Meituan crowdsourced platform, please check it in time,’ and then the voice mixes with the navigation system. And it’s about to exceed the time limit, and some customers will call you to ask where you are. And you may have to accept the order while navigating, and then answer the phone to explain why it’s late…” Director Cao said that this feeling made her feel like every minute was important, and she felt chased every day. She could only go fast and faster.
“We would never waste time on the road, as time on the road is the fastest,” an Ele.me delivery rider told Renwu. Another Ele.me rider said that the only time they can truly control an order is when they are on the road. Unless there is a traffic police officer following them behind, saying “You cannot speed.” Otherwise, when there are so many orders, all riders just want to fly. After saying this, he added another sentence, “Even if flying, it is still not enough time.”
At this time, the only thing that can help them is the electric bike they ride on.
Before starting their job, riders need to get their own electric bike ready themselves. Usually, the delivery stations have long-term partnerships with third-party companies that provide rental services for electric bikes to the riders. To save costs, most riders choose bikes with rents in the hundreds of RMB, but the conditions of these bikes are mostly unsatisfactory. Some do not have rearview mirrors. Some have foot pedals and bike heads wrapped with seven or eight rounds of rubber strips. One rider said that since they started food delivery, they have become a master of repairing electric bikes.
If they don’t want to rent an electric bike, some delivery stations will also guide riders to buy one through instalment payments.
A Meituan rider in Chengdu was required by the station to buy an electric bike of an unknown brand at a price 1,000 RMB higher than the market price. Another rider said that they spent several thousand RMB to buy an electric bike through the station, but the battery is already broken after less than two days of use.
Compared to his peers who have spent too much money unfairly, Meituan delivery rider Wang Fugui feels lucky. On his first day as a rider, he rode out with the electric bike’s battery and got his head stuck in the middle of the road guardrail. That bike was rented from a station for 200 RMB per month but it was basically a pile of parts put together, without headlights, and with worn-out brake pads. Sometimes when he hit the brakes, the bike would move forward, but when he hit the accelerator, it would move backwards.
But none of that was a problem. On the second day after the accident, he spent 10 RMB to install a new foot brake pad himself. When he worked the night shift, he would hold a small flashlight in his mouth to replace the missing headlight or attach the flashlight to the front of the bike with tape. After all, the bike had its advantages, too–it was extremely fast, capable of reaching speeds of up to 65 kilometres per hour, said Wang Fugui.
According to the data released by the Ministry of Public Security in 2018, from 2013 to 2017, there were a total of 56,200 road traffic accidents involving electric bikes causing injuries or deaths in China, resulting in 8,431 deaths and a direct property loss of 111 million RMB. To further regulate the use of electric bikes, the new national standard for electric bikes was officially implemented nationwide in April 2019. According to the regulations, the speed of electric bikes should not exceed 25 kilometres per hour. Whereas an electric bicycle that meets the new national standard would cost at least 1,000 RMB or more.
However, among nearly 30 delivery riders surveyed by Renwu, regardless of working for Meituan or Ele.me, not even one of their electric bikes met the new national standard. These electric bikes typically have a speed of around 40 kilometres per hour, far exceeding the speed limit. Within the riders’ community and online forums, many people discuss how to modify the newly purchased electric bikes to remove the speed limit.
Wang Fugui has worked as a delivery rider for more than a year, and the occasions when his broken-down electric bike does not function became frequent. Sometimes, Wang Fugui had to take a taxi to deliver orders. Fortunately, the county town in northwestern China where he worked was relatively small. Instead of riding his faulty electric bike and going overtime for every order, taking a taxi was more cost-effective. For just 50 RMB, he could easily complete more than ten orders.
Later on, to deliver orders faster, he made up his mind and bought a new electric bike with his own money. As for his broken-down electric bike, it is unknown how many parts were dismantled and used to assemble other rental electric bikes waiting for use.
Whether he was riding his old or new electric bike, Wang Fugui’s performance always ranked among the top five or top three in his area. However, he still resigned after working for a short time because he could not tolerate the platform’s request for bringing in new customers. “In order to expand, Meituan required us to go out and bring in new customers. I tried to comply and spent a few days doing it, but I couldn’t stand it anymore and quit,” he said.
After “delivery riders became the most dangerous profession” became a hot topic, efforts have been made by the platforms.
In the early days of platform establishment, both Meituan and Ele.me had safety training oriented to riders. But this training is mostly limited to the onboarding stage. Exclusive delivery riders and crowdsourced riders need to pass a simple safety knowledge test before starting deliveries.
For exclusive delivery riders, the station managers also frequently remind them of safety issues. A Meituan station manager told Renwu that every time they do safety training, he would intentionally play a small video he made, a compilation of electric bike accidents. More than 300 riders watched it together. After watching it, he would also remind them seriously, “I know you are in a hurry and it is inevitable to ride against the traffic, but please pay attention to the roads.” This echoes the inner voice of another Ele.me station manager, who said that no matter how many times they remind riders, they still prioritise time, and sometimes they do not value themselves enough. Ultimately, they are afraid of exceeding the delivery time.
Later, as the traffic accident rate of food delivery riders continued to rise, in order to further enhance the riders’ safety awareness, food delivery platforms also came up with some methods. This included inviting traffic police to give lectures at the delivery stations and organising riders to take exams at the traffic police department. Meituan also designed a pair of kangaroo-shaped yellow ears for the riders, most of which were inscribed with slogans related to speed and safety. The most common slogans on the ears are “Busy with delivery, but never forget about safety” on the front side, and “Meituan delivery, fast delivery for everything” on the backside. But in reality, it is still difficult to balance both. Most riders are unwilling to wear the ears because they are too cumbersome. One rider told Renwu that as soon as the speed increased, the ears would be blown away by the wind.
To enhance safety, a new feature was implanted into the system: after a rider logs in, a safety education video will randomly pop up at irregular intervals.
However, it often happens that riders get restricted from taking orders until they stop and watch the whole video. According to Adou, a Meituan rider in Hunan, once during peak delivery hours, he had to park on the side of the road to watch a safety education video that suddenly popped up. He was hit by a speeding bicycle and sprained his ankle. This forced him to take a break.
Every day, delivery riders live in fear of exceeding their delivery time and have to stop occasionally to watch safety education videos while on the way. Many of them carry dissatisfaction with this. However, sometimes they are also grateful that the video that pops up on their phone is a safety education video rather than another more deadly surprise: the Smile Campaign.
Around June 2017, Meituan began implementing the Smile Campaign. This is a system-wide spot-check measure that similarly operates on a random and irregular basis. If checked, riders must immediately stop their bike and take a photo of themselves from their chest to their head. This photo has to show their face clearly, and their helmet, work uniform, and work permit. All of this must be completed within 5 minutes. Failure to upload the photo on time or if the photo is deemed inadequate by the system, the rider may face fines ranging from 300 RMB to 1,000 RMB and may also be suspended from using the platform for three days or permanently.
Since the launch of the Smile Campaign, it has become a mystery for Meituan’s riders.
Each Meituan delivery driver has a different answer about when the “smiling action” will pop up: while they climb stairs, wait for the elevator, wait for the meal, and when they are overwhelmed by incoming orders.
The most unforgettable experience related to the Smile Campaign for Adou occurred during a heavy rainstorm when there was a surge of orders. On that day, while wearing a raincoat, he couldn’t see the road clearly. He had to park his vehicle on the side of the road, take off his raincoat, and reveal his work badge and clothes to take a picture. Another delivery rider at the same station was fined 400 RMB because he did not hear the prompt tone of their phone in his pocket.
Also, on a rainy day in February this year, a delivery rider with cerebral palsy in Nanchang, Jiangxi, had his account suspended because he was unable to take the photo in time. Fortunately, the related video of this incident received widespread attention on Douyin, and after receiving numerous feedback from netizens, Meituan officials promptly lifted the suspension of his account.
However, not every delivery rider can receive such special treatment.
In the Meituan rider group and forums, people repeat the same topic every day: their photo clearly meets the requirements but didn’t pass the review. They appealed to customer service, but the result is that due to system issues, it cannot be unblocked. “Our voices never reach the top,” complained one rider.
Meanwhile, some photos that do not meet the requirements have passed the review. A rider in Shenzhen revealed that after being blocked, he has been using their wife’s account to log in and deliver orders. But his own photo could still smoothly pass the Smile Campaign review on his wife’s account. Some riders would also prepare a self-portrait of someone else in advance and it also passes the review.
After the pandemic outbreak, wearing a mask also became a requirement for the Smiling Campaign. One rider from Hubei said that his mask was wet from the rain, and he had no time to change it. The system did not approve his photo and his account was suspended. However, another rider from Guangdong took a photo with his hand covering his mouth and it was approved.
Last winter in Hailar, Inner Mongolia, a Meituan rider was randomly checked by the Smiling Campaign while delivering food at a temperature of minus 30℃. He had to stop his vehicle on the side of the road, take off all his warm clothes, reveal his Meituan uniform and helmet, take a photo, and upload it within five minutes. Among the Meituan riders interviewed by Renwu magazine, many of them described the Smile Campaign as terrible, emotionless, and time-consuming.
Ele.me also has a similar monitoring action called Blue Storm. The difference lies in that the time given to the delivery riders is 15 minutes, and the penalty amount is relatively small, mostly between 5 to 30 RMB. During Renwu’s investigation in 2019, there were no complaints from Ele.me delivery riders about this monitoring action.
However, the good times did not last long. According to the latest news revealed by Ele.me delivery riders, as part of its efforts to catch up with Meituan, the monitoring time for Ele.me’s Blue Storm has been shortened from 15 minutes to 5 minutes this year.
With the increasing violation rate and accident rate of food delivery riders, traffic police have changed from outsiders to relevant people to the system.
Xiong Chongjun is a traffic police officer in Shenzhen and has been an on-location host for traffic programs for nearly 10 years. Because multiple law enforcement videos of him became popular on the internet, he has become a famous traffic police officer known as “Shenzhen Officer Xiong.” Last summer, because he fined two Meituan riders who were riding against traffic to write self-reflection read it out loud, Officer Xiong made a hot search topic on Weibo: “#Your delivery rider might be writing self-criticism if they have not arrived’ not here yet.” Some netizens commented that Officer Xiong was too gentle, and the fine was too light.
In fact, in the past two years, traffic management departments across the country have introduced various traffic penalties specifically targeting food delivery riders.
In the Pudong district of Shanghai, food delivery riders are required by the traffic police to wear electronic vests with personal identification numbers. Meanwhile, each rider is given a traffic scorecard with 36 points. Traffic police officers and surveillance cameras enforce the rules together. Riders will lose 12 points for not wearing the vest or riding unregistered electric bikes. They will lose 6 points if they run red lights. They will lose 3 points if they ride against traffic, ride in motor vehicle lanes, or ride on sidewalks. Once a rider loses all 36 points, they may face permanent suspension or be fired by their company. Shanghai Pudong district was the first place in the country to implement this electronic vest policy for riders.
Other areas such as Xingtai in Hebei province and Shenzhen in Guangdong province have also followed Shanghai’s lead by introducing a points system for riders. Qingdao has implemented a blacklist system for illegal food delivery riders, and in Jiangsu province, if food delivery riders commit traffic violations once, they will be suspended for one day. In Nanjing, the traffic management department organises a study day for riders who commit a second violation.
However, under the immense pressure of overdue delivery time, these measures have had little effect.
In December 2019 and May 2020, the Renwu magazine team went to the Lujiazui area of Shanghai Pudong district twice to observe the wearing of electronic vests by food delivery riders. According to statistics on the number of riders passing through Century Avenue within an hour, during the daytime, because of the presence of many traffic police officers, more than 70% of riders wear electronic vests in this area. Nevertheless, some riders still choose to violate traffic rules even while wearing vests.
The riders have carefully considered this result. During the daytime, there are more traffic police officers on duty, so not wearing the vest makes it easy to get caught–and results in losing 12 points. However, if they violate the rules while wearing the vest and get caught by the camera, running red lights or riding against traffic only results in a small deduction of points. In the evening, the proportion of riders wearing the vest will decrease significantly, for the simple reason that traffic police officers have finished their shifts.
Law enforcement officers, including Officer Xiong and many other traffic police officers, have mixed feelings. They are the ones who witness the most traffic violations by delivery riders, but sometimes they also quite understand the riders’ situation.
Officer Xiong told Renwu that he often appears at the scene of accidents involving food delivery riders. Sometimes the vehicles are overturned; sometimes their vehicle collides with other vehicles or pedestrians, or the rider is hit by other vehicles. Based on his observations, the first reaction of all the delivery riders who fell was to quickly get up and check if the food had spilt, and then call the customer to explain. No one cares about their own safety.
This made him understand more about the difficulties that delivery riders face. Officer Xiong said he often chats with food delivery riders and found that this group of people have simple thoughts. They just think about not exceeding the delivery time, avoiding negative customer reviews, and not really caring about themselves. Their own safety is never their priority, delivering the food to the customer on time is.
According to Officer Xiong, a traffic officer working on the front line, the root cause of all these problems is the intense competition between food delivery platforms. These problems also expose insufficient non-motorized vehicle lanes in many cities. Competition between companies has led to shorter delivery times, and delivery riders are becoming increasingly stressed. Whether exceeding delivery times or breaking traffic laws, they have to make a choice.
Therefore, whenever a delivery rider is found breaking the law, some police officers express empathy while enforcing the law. On the day when a delivery rider is fined and required to write a self-reflection, Officer Xiong specifically instructed them to write it under the shade of a tree. Many police officers also need to help delivery riders deliver their orders.
In public news reports, similar incidents are countless.
On 25 March of this year, a delivery rider in Tongxiang, Zhejiang, was stopped by traffic police for riding against traffic and was fined for standing at the road intersection to participate in traffic guidance. He told the police that he had just accepted an order and had not had time to pick up the food, and if he was late, he would be penalised. In the end, the traffic police officer entrusted an auxiliary officer to ride the delivery rider’s electric bike to deliver the food. Along the way, the electric bike stalled three times. When the auxiliary officer finally arrived at the customer’s doorstep, the food spilt when they looked down.
Fortunately, this situation does not occur frequently, and most traffic police officers manage to complete the delivery tasks smoothly.
On 16 April, in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, a Meituan food delivery rider was stopped by a traffic police officer and punished for breaking traffic rules three times in a rush to deliver food. In early June, in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, an Ele.me rider who drove a motorcycle without a licence plate was seized for violating regulations. On 29 June, in Dongguan, Guangdong province, a traffic police officer found a Meituan rider driving a motorcycle without a licence plate and impounded the vehicle on the spot. The orders that these riders were unable to complete had been delivered by traffic police or auxiliary police.
After completing the deliveries, almost all of the food delivery police officers would do the same thing. They would say to the customers who ordered the food: “I wish you a pleasant meal, please give us a five-star rating if possible.”
The last protective barrier
Among all the food delivery riders that Renwu contacted during this investigation, Shi Chen is quite unique because he would rather be penalised than risk his life. He insists that he has never run a red light or gone against traffic in his over one year of being a rider. He wears his uniform and helmet neatly every day when delivering meals.
Whereas he still suffered a vehicle accident. One night in July 2019, he was hit by a small car while delivering food, and his right ankle was fractured. The traffic police arrived at the scene and determined that the other party was fully responsible. After being taken to the hospital, the car owner paid for all medical expenses including the surgery.
As an exclusive delivery rider, the station deducts 106 RMB from Shi Chen’s salary every month as insurance premiums, which includes accidental insurance. Normally, Shi Chen can receive compensation for accidents. However, when he contacted the station after being discharged from the hospital, he found that his rider account had been deleted.
The reason given by the platform was that because of his long hospitalisation and inability to complete orders, his on-duty rate did not meet the standard and his account was deleted by the system. Along with the deletion of his rider account, his insurance payment records also disappeared. Without these records, he could not claim compensation from the insurance company. In an attempt to retrieve the records, he tried to communicate with the platform and Meituan, only to find himself kicked out of the platform group.
In the community of food delivery riders, Shi Chen’s experience is not unique. Insurance is the only and the last safety guarantee that riders can rely on in the system. However, during the investigation, Renwu found that many riders were unable to obtain compensation smoothly after traffic accidents.
According to the design of food delivery platforms, the insurance for exclusive delivery riders is deducted by the delivery station on a monthly basis, and the specific amount is also determined by the station. The insurance for crowdsourced riders is deducted on a daily basis. At a rate of 3 RMB per day, the coverage time lasts from the rider’s first order of the day until midnight. If the rider is still delivering food at this time, the coverage can be extended for up to an additional half hour.
In the view of sociologist Zheng Guanghuai, this labour protection system is a clever way for food delivery platforms to shift responsibility away from themselves.
During an interview with Jiemian Culture on this year’s International Workers’ Day, Zheng Guanghuai described the food delivery platforms as “hands-off bosses.” The platforms contract delivery services to outsourcing companies, effectively severing the direct employment relationship with the workers. Insurance issues are left for workers to purchase accident insurance. If a worker is involved in a traffic accident, the platform can push the responsibility to the insurance company. Zheng Guanghuai pointed out that in this kind of responsibility transfer, the blurred labour relationship makes it even more difficult for workers to protect their rights.
Sun Ping also found in her investigation that if it is a minor accident, most of the food delivery riders she contacted would choose to bear the cost themselves. Many of them have told her that the application process for compensation is particularly complicated and troublesome, and that they would rather endure the cost themselves than go through the complex process.
However, once the accidents go beyond minor scratches and bumps, stories like Shi Chen’s will repeat themselves over and over again.
An Ele.me crowdsourced delivery rider told Renwu that he was involved in a traffic accident while delivering food and sent a pedestrian to the hospital. The insurance company delayed compensation for a year, and in the end, he had to borrow online loans to cover medical expenses at first.
In another case, a rider in Suqian was asked by the station manager to sign a voluntary waiver of the insurance contract when he joined Meituan. The rider was puzzled, but the station manager told him that being a rider was the most high-risk occupation, and no one dared to insure them. This situation is not unique, according to Jin Zhuangzhuang, a former Meituan distribution station manager. Insurance for crowdsourced riders is paid directly through the app and is mandatory, while insurance for exclusive delivery riders is paid by the station. Many stations do not insure exclusive riders because they find it troublesome.
People who cannot obtain proper protection of their rights also include pedestrians hit by delivery riders.
In April of last year, Lin Wei was hit by a Meituan rider on his way home and his left leg was fractured. The rider had only just started work that day, and the station manager stated that their insurance had not been purchased yet and that the incident was not related to the station. “We only ask the rider to deliver food, not to hit people,” said the manager.
After several discussions, the station’s proposed solution was to help persuade the rider to pay for the medical and nutritional expenses in instalments.
Finally, the solution to this matter relied on guanxi. Lin Wei’s company leader knew a senior executive at Meituan, who pressured the station to eventually agree to pay for the medical expenses.
Under a social media post where a Meituan delivery rider was advocating for their rights, one netizen commented: “Delivery riders have helped Meituan generate orders and increase its market value, but Meituan, a company that has grown depending on delivery business, still doesn’t provide any formal employment contracts to its delivery riders.”
A year after the accident, Shi Chen’s delivery rider’s account remains inactive, and he has not received any compensation from the accident insurance. He told Renwu, “I have decided to leave this industry and will not come back.”
The delivery riders who are still out on the road and frantically trying to save time can only pray silently in their hearts. Meituan delivery rider Wei Lai, who once witnessed a fellow rider die on the spot at a road intersection, wrote in his own online diary, “May all delivery riders in the world return home safely.”
When she released the video of her experience as a food delivery rider, Director Cao was on a road trip across China to shoot a new project. She still felt suffocated when reminiscing about her days as a rider with Renwu on her way to the uninhabited areas of Tibet.
As a short-term participant in the system, Director Cao proposed one suggestion that all product managers and algorithm engineers of food delivery platforms should work as riders for a month. In this way, they could understand the severity of the system’s oppression of people.
In an article about how the Meituan system shortened the delivery time to 28 minutes, a rider also made a similar suggestion: “Why don’t you come to the front line and deliver for two or three days? See how you can deliver in 28 minutes without running red lights, going against the traffic, or speeding.”
To some extent, this suggestion coincides with the views of data sociologist Nick Seaver.
Seaver once proposed the concept of algorithmic culture. In his view, algorithms are not only formed by rational programs, but also by institutions, humans, cross-environments, and rough and ready-made understandings acquired in everyday cultural life. He believes that algorithms are made up of collective human practices and suggests that researchers should explore algorithms anthropologically.
As a scholar, Sun Ping fully agrees with Seaver’s view, but in reality, algorithms are still mostly based on digital logic.
Strengthening the training and value orientation of programmers is crucial. However, in China, most programmers have a linear thinking style of science and engineering and lack a social science-oriented way of thinking about fairness and value.
During her research, Sun Ping also communicated with some programmers involved in the algorithm and found that they have their own logic and also consider various unexpected events. However, programmers are just executors, not rule-makers. The rule makers are the food delivery platforms, and the programmers are just fulfilling the platform’s decisions.
During this investigation, Renwu also attempted many times to contact the algorithm team of the food delivery platform, but they refused to discuss the topics about the system under the name of the company. “This is about the company’s confidentiality,” according to a Meituan algorithm engineer.
Sun Ping said that the biggest problem with this algorithm at the moment is the unilateral discourse power. The most insoluble part of the entire system lies in that the riders themselves are also among all factors that push the riders to run faster.
“This is a bigger and more invisible game. Any data generated by the delivery rider during the delivery process will be uploaded to the cloud data of the platform as part of big data,” Sun Ping said. The system requires the riders to run faster and faster, and in the face of penalties for exceeding the time limit, the riders will also try their best to meet the system’s requirements. The faster the riders work, the more “short-term duration data” they help the system increase. Data is the foundation of the algorithm and will train the algorithm. When the algorithm discovers that everyone is becoming faster and faster, it will accelerate once again.
In Sun Ping’s view, there is still a dispute over ownership of the data generated by the delivery rider during the delivery process, but the riders are still working hard. According to the latest data released by Meituan, in the first half of 2020, delivery riders in 2,800 counties and cities across the country disregarded the pandemic and worked day and night to deliver food, groceries, medicine, and other daily necessities to more than 400 million users in time.
After the news of Meituan’s market value exceeding 200 billion USD was released, amidst a wave of astonishment, some people once again mentioned Wang Xing’s obsession with speed, as well as the book that he mentioned to have had a great impact on him, Finite and Infinite Games. In this book, James P. Carse, a professor of religious history at New York University, divides games in the world into two types: finite games and infinite games, where the former aims to win and the latter aims to keep the game going forever.
The system is still running, and the game is still ongoing, but the riders are almost completely unaware of their identity in this infinite game. They continue to sprint, in pursuit of the possibility of a better life.
(Note: As requested by the interviewees, the names of the delivery riders in this article are pseudonyms. )