Help the food delivery couriers out: would you like to wait 5 more minutes ?

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On: September 28, 2020
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The food delivery frenzy

China has the largest food delivery services market in the world, which is expected to exceed 300 billion Yuan in 2020. The market is a duopoly, dominated by two platforms – Ele.me and Meituan, respectively owned by Alibaba and Tencent. These apps have greatly transformed the dietary habits of Chinese people and food delivery service even becomes the life savior for some people over the coronavirus lockdown. However, behind these apps there’s an army of gig workers who are working under hazardous conditions – the couriers. Driven by algorithms, millions of couriers are risking their lives by choosing speed over safety so as to deliver orders on time.

The blue-uniformed Ele.me couriers and the yellow-uniformed Meituan couriers are commonplace on the streets of China

The controversial new feature

Having received criticism from the society, on Sep 9th, Ele.me announced (In Chinese) that it will soon launch a new feature: a button on the check-out page that says “I would like to wait 5 or 10 more minutes.” Ele.me declares that this new feature would allow users who are not in a hurry to give more time to the couriers, helping them to drive relatively slowly without worrying about being late. However, this announcement soon received very polarized opinions: some hold that this feature can give couriers a break amid the rushing and speeding, and others claim that it cannot solve the real problem.


Screenshot of the Ele.me interface

Faster, Faster, Faster

The platforms boast about their increasingly speedy delivery. Statistics show that the average delivery time at present has shrunk by 10 minutes (In Chinese) compared to 3 years ago. For the programmers of the Ele.me algorithm-the Ark, the shortening time means the development of technology, the embodiment of AI machine learning, but for the couriers who apply this advanced technology, this can be “crazy” and “deadly”. The stringent algorithm sets the delivery time to be the most important indicator. Late delivery can incur complaints, penalties and wage cut, but the overambitious goals can only be achieved by violating traffic rules and working long hours.

It is not the consumers who demand them to be this fast. The vanished time is a result of the vicious competition between Ele.me and its rival. To have a greater market share, the platforms want to outrun each other by improving their algorithms to achieve higher efficiency. However, the optimization of efficiency has a boundary- the speed of the couriers, the traffic rules, the road condition and other real-life contingencies constitute this boundary. But when it comes to profitability, the platforms do not care.

The platform uses algorithmic nudges to influence its couriers (Christin 9). Their work is extremely quantified by the overtime rate, the number of complaints, and the number of orders; these data shown on their screen constantly push them to run fast in order not to be kicked out. What’s even worse is that when algorithm detects that everyone is getting faster, it would cut the time and speed it up once again. In front of the power of algorithms, people become tools.

Driven by algorithm, food delivery becomes a high-risk profession

The exploited platform labour

The food delivery couriers fall into the ever-expanding category known as the platform labour, around which the debate never ceased. In the West, the typical example of platform labour is the ride-sharing firm Uber, which has “combined technological prowess with precarious labour,” and uses algorithm to “manipulate the behaviour of drivers to obtain the maximum amount of work for the lowest possible wage” (Deuze and Prenger 264). These contemporary digital platforms have long mastered the art of exploiting platform labour- they are “sucking profits out of previously un-monetized interactions, creating new forms of hyper-exploitation and spreading precarity throughout the workforce” (Platform cooperativism 1).

The situation of Ele.me couriers is worse than Uber. According to the statistics, the number of traffic violations of online ride-sharing drivers has been far lower than that of food delivery couriers, not even on the same scale (In Chinese). In their pursuit of maximum profits, the food delivery platforms transferred the risk to the couriers who have the least bargaining power.

“In the world of platform labor, inequality is a feature rather than a bug” (van Doorn 11).

Couriers rushing into the elevator while checking their phones

Can the new feature afford more time?     

The concept of affordances refer to the “functions an artifact enables and constrains” (Davis and Chouinard 243) . In this context, users are in fact not only allowed but are encouraged to click the button as the underlying message indicates that if you don’t click, you should be responsible for the courier’s haste and even safety issue for you are not willing to allow some extra time. Through this way, the platform successfully transfers the conflict between itself and the couriers to the couriers and the users.

The problem is whether or not this feature can allow extra time to ensure couriers’ safety. My answer is no. From a practical standpoint, it is not applicable because of the unanswerable questions: how can we know whether the couriers would pick up more orders or not due to the extra time? Will more tolerant consumers be treated worse? Can this really reassure the couriers and slow them down? More importantly, like what I analyzed above, the dilemma of the couriers is not about time, in effect, it is caused by exploitation of platform labor through algorithms, who are already on the disadvantaged side. The ruthless algorithms plus the capitalists’ disregard for the underprivileged platform labour result in the couriers’ sprinting and risking their lives. This should not be reduced to a matter of “wait 5 more minutes button” and definitely not shift the responsibility onto customers. There is clearly a logic problem here.

There should be an overall legal oversight of the platform economy. it is undoubted that strong national regulatory measures should be taken to intervene the competition that harms the society. And instead of passing the buck, food delivery platforms should take up the social responsibility and treat their staff as people, not tools.

Bibliography

Christin, Angele. “What Data Can Do: A Typology of Mechanisms.” International journal of communication (Online) (2020): 1115–. Print.

Davis, Jenny L, and James B Chouinard. “Theorizing Affordances: From Request to Refuse.” Bulletin of science, technology & society 36.4 (2017): 241–248. Web.

Deuze, Mark, and Mirjam Prenger. Making Media: Production, Practices, and Professions. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019. Print.

Food Delivery: Drivers Take the Risks. Platforms Reap the Rewards. TechNode, https://technode.com/2019/12/04/food-delivery-drivers-take-the-risks-platforms-reap-the-rewards/. Accessed 26 Sept. 2020.

Food Delivery in China: There Are No Winners. TechNode, https://technode.com/2020/04/29/there-are-no-food-delivery-winners/. Accessed 26 Sept. 2020.

Platform cooperativism | ROSA LUXEMBURG STIFTUNG NYC. http://www.rosalux-nyc.org/platform-cooperativism-2/. Accessed 25 Sept. 2020.

van Doorn, Niels. “Platform Labor: On the Gendered and Racialized Exploitation of Low-Income Service Work in the ‘on-Demand’ Economy.” Information, communication & society 20.6 (2017): 898–914. Web.

Viral Article Puts the Brakes on China’s Food Delivery Frenzy. TechCrunch, https://social.techcrunch.com/2020/09/08/viral-article-puts-brakes-on-chinas-food-delivery-frenzy/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2020.

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