Chinese food delivery giants vow to treat workers better after brutal exposé of inhumane working conditions

Domestic News

An exposé published on September 8 details the exploitative and dehumanizing working conditions faced by Chinese delivery workers on a day-to-day basis. Today Meituan and Ele.me — the top two food delivery services in the country — have responded with open letters to the public, vowing to make significant changes in how they assess employees’ performance and to treat them with more respect.

meituan food delivery worker

An exposé (in Chinese) published on September 8 details the exploitative and dehumanizing working conditions faced by Chinese delivery workers on a day-to-day basis. Today Meituan and Ele.me — the top two food delivery services in the country — have responded with open letters to the public, vowing to make significant changes in how they assess employees’ performance and to treat them with more respect.

The lengthy article published by Chinese magazine Portrait, is an incredible piece of reporting, shedding a critical light on an insanely successful but ruthless industry where food delivery riders have to risk their lives at work to meet employers’ insatiable appetite for optimal efficiency and maximized profits.

As the final product of a six-month investigation, the piece cites a number of current and former delivery workers, management staff at major food delivery companies, and sociologists studying the broader impact of technology on society.

According to the article, food delivery workers are often given an unreasonably short amount of time to complete orders, and are expected to ride recklessly and break traffic rules. The platforms’ relentless pursuit of fast delivery has not only taken a toll on riders’ mental health, but it has also subjected them to physical danger. As the piece notes, in the first half of 2017, there was a fatal car accident involving food delivery riders in Shanghai about every two and a half days. In September 2018, Guangzhou recorded nearly 2,000 traffic violations by food delivery riders, most of whom were employees of Meituan and Ele.me.

The anecdotes in the article are horrifying. “It’s so common for us to get involved in car accidents. As long as the meals I’m delivering remain intact, my injuries are no big deal,” said a delivery worker for Ele.me. A regional manager at Meituan told the magazine that facing performance pressure from higher-ups, he had no choice but to deal callously with workers enduring health problems or having concerns about working in hazardous weather conditions.

The heart of the problem, the article argues, is that food delivery workers are actually slaves to faceless algorithms, designed to put company performance above the well-being of workers. And when operating in the real world, these algorithms inevitably put riders’ lives at risk because they fail to factor in uncontrollable variables like weather and real-time traffic conditions.

Thanks in part to its ability to extract the most from employees, China’s food delivery economy has grown significantly in the past few years. Backed by Chinese tech giant Tencent, Meituan went public in Hong Kong in 2018, raising $4.2 billion in its initial public offering. Ele.me, which was fully acquired by Alibaba in 2018. Meanwhile, Ele.me, which was fully acquired by Alibaba in 2018, reported a considerable rise in gross merchandise value (GMV) this year.

The exposé has dominated the Chinese internet since it dropped, renewing widespread calls for better working conditions for food delivery workers. The general feedback was reminiscent of the sympathetic reactions to a viral video last month, which showed a Meituan courier being denied entry at an upscale shopping mall in Beijing because of the uniform she was wearing. “Delivery workers risk their lives every time they set out on their scooters and travel miles to deliver orders. Tech giants are obligated to treat them with more appreciation and respect,” a Weibo user wrote.

Some critics also blame customers: “Stop making complaints when your order is late for like just five minutes. Be more sympathetic and understanding,” a Weibo user commented.

In response to the controversy, both Meituan and Ele.me have acknowledged the article and said they were aware of the heavy criticism they were facing. In a statement issued today, Meituan announced (in Chinese) that it would improve its algorithm to prioritize its drivers’ safety and add eight more minutes to the estimated time for each delivery for the sake of unforeseen factors. It also promised better benefits for its workers and their families.

While Meituan was widely applauded for its practical measures, Ele.me, on the other hand, shot itself in the foot with what’s seen by many as an insincere response. In a vaguely-worded statement (in Chinese), Ele.me asked its customers to be more patient with their orders. The only concrete measure mentioned in its response, though, was to add a feature that allows users to voluntarily extend wait time by five or ten minutes. As many critics argued, the move was an obvious attempt on Ele.me’s part to shift the blame away from the company, forcing customers to sacrifice their convenience on moral grounds instead of making changes from the inside. “What I really want is a new feature that asks me if the platform has to pay its riders better!” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

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