The hole-in-the-wall noodle shop was packed on a weeknight. But as usual, no one was here to eat.
The tough, daring drivers behind China’s food delivery craze
Two servers behind the single counter were busy putting boxes of spicy pulled noodles doused liberally with hot oil into plastic bags, and taping on receipts with customers’ addresses.
The group crowding around the counter weren’t customers, but couriers working for various food delivery apps in the southern megacity of Shenzhen. The only rest they get during their shift is when they wait for the food.
The shop itself has no decoration. The tables are covered with ingredients and takeout boxes. A sticker on a shelf reads: “Delivery riders, you’ve had a long day!”
But the outlet needs no accoutrements. It’s already part of a massive online food delivery ecosystem worth $33 billion a year in China, the largest in the world.
As the world celebrates International Workers’ Day on May 1, more than a million workers are doing a dangerous and difficult job that drives China’s booming food delivery market.
One of them, 36-year-old Cao Rong, lives with his wife and baby daughter in a dark, tiny studio in Shenzhen, a city dubbed China’s Silicon Valley thanks to its large tech industry.
During lunch and dinner hours – that’s up to 10 hours a day – Cao rides his scooter between restaurants and customers, often taking car-only lanes and jumping red lights.
The wiry man is also able to climb eight floors at a clip and check for new orders on his smartphone while driving.
“I know it is dangerous,” he says. “But you don’t make money if you are not fast.”
Compared with parcel delivery, which has powered China’s online shopping craze, food delivery requires couriers to be faster and take better care of the goods.
Depending on the distance, they are generally given 30 to 40 minutes to deliver meals. The commission is usually less than $1 per order – as long as the food arrives on time and does not get spilled.
In order to make more money during peak meal times, drivers say they often take several orders at once.
The result of all this rushing is high traffic casualties. At least two delivery drivers died on the road in Shenzhen last month.
And the eastern city of Nanjing recorded three deaths and more than 2,400 injuries in traffic accidents involving delivery drivers in the first half of 2017.
Couriers say minor accidents are far more common.
Cao says he often falls off his scooter on rainy days. It’s why his smartphone screen is cracked.
Part of China’s e-commerce boom, online delivery has expanded on a scale unseen elsewhere in the world.
Government data showed that 343 million users were ordering food online by the end of 2017 – a user base larger than the US population, and a quarter of China’s total population.
Last year, delivery apps made revenues of $33 billion, a growth of 83% from 2016, according to market research firm Analysys.
Meanwhile in the US, third-party food delivery only recorded sales of $13 billion in 2017, estimates strategy firm Pentallect. For many city dwellers in China, ordering meals online has become a daily routine.
“The industry is leveraging on cheap labor to offer convenience to office workers,” said Steven Zhu, an analyst with investment research firm Pacific Epoch.
“If you look at developed countries, where the pay gap is smaller, it is very hard to sustain this business model.”
The country’s tech giants are seeing strong growth potential in the delivery sector.
In April, Alibaba acquired Ele.me, China’s largest online delivery start-up by revenue. The deal that values the company at $9.5 billion. (Alibaba also owns Inkstone.) Ele.me’s major rival, Meituan-Dianping, is backed by social media and gaming giant Tencent.
In contrast, the New York-listed delivery company Grubhub was valued at $8.8 billion by Monday market close, as was Germany-listed food delivery group Delivery Hero.
Zhu said based on the revenue numbers, the total number of food couriers working every day in China exceeds one million. Many are freelance drivers who work under no formal contract, no basic salary and no medical or pension plans.
China’s labor law requires that employers provide welfare and safety protection for workers, but such rules are loosely enforced.
Responding to the rise in accidents, local governments have launched campaigns against speeding and distracted driving by food couriers, but the workers say the crackdown only means they have to try harder to evade the police.
The harsh conditions have prompted some delivery workers to fight for better treatment.
Rights group China Labour Bulletin recorded 14 protests or strikes by food couriers across China last year, in which workers demanded higher pay and compensation for traffic injuries.
But in a country where independent unions are banned and civil movements discouraged, it is often difficult to push for change.
Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin says that compared with manufacturing workers, those in the internet economy are having a even harder time bargaining.
“There is so much distance between the bosses and the workers on the ground,” Crothall says. “The workers often don’t know who to deal with.”
A spokeswoman at Meituan-Dianping said the company has provided its workers with road-safety training. It is also rolling out voice-control software that allows them to take orders without looking at their phone screens.
“The couriers are valuable assets to us,” she said. “We try our best to solve the problems they have.”
Ele.me, which also owns major delivery app Baidu Waimai, says it has been providing insurance packages to workers and cooperating with the traffic police to offer them safety education.
”Ele.me has a comprehensive system to protect workers’ interests,” its spokeswoman said.
A short stint
Despite the hardship, many workers from the country’s poorer regions are still attracted to the job by its low barrier to entry, flexible hours and daily payments.
But couriers say most people do not stay on for long.
He Shun, a 19-year-old migrant worker who moved to Shenzhen this year, says he became a food delivery driver recently because it did not require any skills.
Be he’s prepared to quit as soon as he finds a better fit: preferably a real estate sales job.
“If I keep doing it, I will one day die on the road,” He said.
Cao, a former watch factory worker, took the delivery job because it allows him to take care of his baby daughter when his wife is working in the afternoon.
After saving up some cash, the couple plans to open a grocery store in their hometown in Hunan province.
Then Cao will finally be able to join his family for dinner.