Fight the algorithms: Chinese delivery drivers on the edge

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Delivering a hot meal at exactly the promised time, Chinese food delivery driver Zhuang Zhenhua triumphantly completed his job through the Meituan app – and was immediately fined half of his earnings.

A glitch meant it inaccurately logged it as late and suffered an automatic sanction – one of many ways, he said, in which delivery companies exploit millions of workers even as the industry is booming.

Authorities have cracked down on companies, including Alibaba’s Meituan and Ele.me, to ensure basic labor protections such as adequate compensation, insurance and algorithms that effectively encourage unsafe driving.

But more than a dozen drivers told AFP that there have been few changes on the ground.

Often the only way to complete orders on time is “go very fast … go through red lights, drive on the wrong side of the road,” Zhuang said.

“In the beginning (the app allocated) 40 to 50 minutes to complete an order – now for an order within a distance of two kilometers, with the same distance and time as before, we are given 30 minutes,” he explained.

The coronavirus pandemic and ensuing blockages have spurred demand for meal delivery services – the industry is now worth 664 billion yuan ($ 100 billion), according to a report by the China Hospitality Association.

The nation’s competitive app-based services have extended to nearly every aspect of modern life, with digital savvy consumers accustomed to instant service and fast delivery thanks to a ready flow of low-cost labor.

But after years of unlimited growth, China’s Big Tech is being targeted by Beijing with Tencent, Didi and Meituan all being targeted for anti-monopoly rules.

Earlier this year, Alibaba was fined a record $ 2.8 billion after an investigation found it had abused its market dominance.

He lives at risk

There is growing public concern over the amount of data handled by popular apps, including food delivery platforms, and Chinese authorities have ordered the cyberspace watchdog to examine how algorithms are being used by tech conglomerates.

Shorter delivery times have also caused more accidents in recent years, amid promises of fast service.

Globally, the industry is facing scrutiny over the treatment of predominantly freelance workers, who bear low wages, few employee entitlements, and are often hired through agencies to avoid providing benefits.

China’s gig economy now accounts for nearly a quarter of its workforce: 200 million people have “flexible jobs,” according to government data.

The plight of food delivery and truck drivers caught public attention after small compensation was offered to the family of a courier who died delivering meals for Ele.me in Beijing, and a second set himself on fire. in a dispute with the company over pay.

Despite being considered an essential service, particularly at the height of the pandemic, drivers earn only 7,700 yuan a month on average.

Zhuang said many believe they are putting their lives at risk because of the algorithms the apps use to determine the route and travel time allowed before drivers incur a “late delivery” penalty.

Another motorcyclist, who gave his surname as Liu, told AFP that the allotted turnaround time included time for food preparation, something beyond his control but which could impact his pay. .

“If there are delays, the cyclists take the blame,” the 40-year-old said, adding that the system made it difficult to refuse orders from slow traders.

“There’s no point in complaining,” said driver Chen Mingqiang, 50.

“Nobody wants to pay”

Meituan, which has more than 628 million users, said it calculates the travel time in four ways and allocates the longest from these options and includes a buffer.

In a written statement, the company insisted that such decisions were made “with the safety of motorcyclists as the first priority and also to meet the needs of consumers” and that drivers could challenge unfair fines.

Last month, after China’s cyberspace regulator outlined plans for tighter controls on tech companies, Meituan said it would streamline its “algorithm strategy” and introduce greater allowances to help couriers avoid dangerous working conditions. .

Kendra Schaefer, of Beijing-based consultancy Trivium, said the lack of transparency about how platforms have been coded to determine driver requirements and compensation is a serious problem.

“An algorithm is meant to maximize efficiency, sadly, as we are finding as society modernizes, algorithms maximize efficiency at the expense of humans,” he said.

“Everyone wants drivers to be treated better, but nobody wants to pay for it.”

The sector relies heavily on migrant workers, who are often low-skilled and have come to cities from rural provinces in hopes of making money.

For many, there are few alternatives to work.

Zhuang admitted: “If I had a choice, I definitely wouldn’t work as a delivery boy. It’s a dangerous, high-risk job.”

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