Chinese Food Delivery Platforms Embroiled in Controversy Over Responses to Popular Investigative Story

Eleme Inc. and Meituandianping Inc., two of China’s largest online food delivery service platforms, aroused controversy Wednesday after they published statements in response to an investigative story describing the problems that food delivery workers face.

According to the story published on Tuesday by Ren Wu, or People magazine, food delivery platforms automatically plan the shortest routes for their delivery workers using real-time intelligent dispatch systems, and to ride in accordance with the designated routes, delivery workers usually need to ride against traffic or run red lights, putting themselves at greater risk of a traffic accident. 

The story received over 100,000 views on WeChat within a few hours with more than 100,000 people sharing the story. 

What’s more, late deliveries are not allowed. If they occur, delivery workers will receive negative reviews, reduced revenues, or they can even be fired. A large number of food delivery workers also cannot obtain insurance claims when they have traffic accidents.

In the first half of 2017, 1 food delivery worker was injured or killed every 2.5 days in Shanghai, according to Traffic Police Corps of the Shanghai Public Security Bureau. In the same year, 12 takeaway riders were killed or injured in Shenzhen within three months. In September 2018, Guangzhou traffic police dealt with nearly 2,000 takeaway riders who violated traffic laws. Meituan’s riders accounted for half of them, and Eleme’s riders ranked second.

What’s more, the coverage of basic insurance for food delivery workers is limited, and the most extensive accidental injury insurance is enjoyed by only 49.31% of platform workers, according to a 2020 Central China Normal University (CCNU) research report on 800 food delivery workers in Wuhan. 

Since food delivery personnel need to travel back and forth in the streets and alleys every day, their work is dangerous. When encountering a traffic accident, 62.17% of the delivery personnel said they need to take responsibility for themselves and cannot get work injury or medical insurance. 

In response to the questions over the platform’s exploitation of food delivery workers, Eleme, the platform acquired by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., published a statement at midnight the next day, saying that it will add a small button called “I’m willing to wait another 5-10 minutes” when customers are waiting for their orders. 

Moreover, it will provide an incentive mechanism for outstanding food delivery workers with good historical credit. Even if their food orders are delivered late, they will not be punished. 

The statement received over 100,000 views on its official WeChat platform, with many comments akin to “I’m willing to wait a few more minutes.” 

The statement received nearly 650,000 likes on Chinese microblogging site Weibo, but comments were more about disputes over the function of the button. “Rather than asking customers to wait longer, the platform should upgrade its system to make the delivery time more reasonable,” one Weibo user said. 

On Zhihu, China’s largest Q&A platform, the dispute over Eleme’s statement became a trending topic. About 380,000 people participated in a poll called “Can waiting five more minutes solve the current difficulty of food delivery workers?” 31% people chose yes, while 69% people chose no.

“It is not the users who placed the order that exploit food delivery workers, it’s the platform’s algorithm. Eleme is shifting their responsibility,” one Zhihu user commented. 

Tang Jiansheng, deputy secretary general at Shanghai Consumer Council, said Eleme’s statement is not logically sound, local media reported

He said that rules related to food delivery workers are made by platforms, while consumers place orders on the platform, which means the business behavior is also generated on platforms. 

“So in this case, the platform is blaming consumers for the delivery workers’ behavior, such as traffic light violations and bumping into other people. This is obviously not logical.”

Tang added that late deliveries are not the fault of consumers. “It is necessary to clarify the relationship between the delivery platform, delivery workers and consumers. The food delivery platform needs to further improve their management methods.”

Another food delivery giant Meituan Dianping, the platform backed by internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd., published a statement Wednesday night, saying that this is “a system problem” which should be “solved by the people behind the system,” and they are solely responsible for these problems. 

Meituan dispatch system will leave 8 minutes of flexible time for food delivery workers to wait for delayed elevators and traffic while on their delivery route,” the statement said. 

What’s more, Meituan said they are developing smart helmets. ”By connecting mobile phones and bluetooth, food delivery workers can manage their work by speaking.“ 

As early as 2017, media outlets had reported food delivery workers’ race with designated delivery time. Chinese public service broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported that food delivery workers usually violate traffic rules to avoid late delivery. 

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What’s more, a food delivery worker can deliver 20 to 30 orders per day on average, and from which they can earn 5 to 6 yuan per order. If customers cannot have their food on time, the platform will deduct 200 to 300 yuan from food delivery workers. Therefore, workers earn almost nothing that day. 

In 2018, local newspaper Nanchang Evening News reported that in July that year, the traffic accident rate of food delivery workers increased by about 18% from the previous month. And the most common traffic violations were running red lights, riding in car lanes and driving in the opposite direction. Speeding was also common.

“Delivering more orders means more income,” a policeman surnamed Wang said. “Violating traffic laws in order to save time increases the probability of accidents. It seems to be a race against time, but it is actually a bet with life.” 

Problems with food delivery workers are nothing new. Stories and articles can help bring public attention to these issues, but ultimately, there needs to be a fundamental change by the companies in how they not only treat, but protect their delivery drivers.