A recent investigative report by a Chinese monthly magazine, Renwu, gave an insight into the working conditions of China's food delivery people, circulating widely on social media.
It revealed how food delivery drivers are pushed by companies to deliver food in an increasingly short timeframe, all at the behest of algorithms that often turn a blind eye to real-life situations including traffic conditions and regularly send them on dangerous routes (against traffic, down footpaths and on highways), and penalize them if meals are even one second late.
The system constantly assesses a driver's on-time performance and assigns a ranking, which affects whether he is assigned more work. As a result delivery people are constantly risking their life to deliver meals on time, resulting in a rising number of traffic accidents.
Meituan and Ele.me, China's top two food delivery service platforms, responded by saying that they will make some adjustments to make life easier for their drivers. Ele.me announced that it would create a new option for customers to indicate that they don't mind waiting an extra 5 or 10 minutes for their food, while Meituan will allocate an extra 8 minutes as elastic time.
Some people believe these new measures will help to ensure drivers' safety, but most people argue that they will not help to fix the fundamental conflict between limited delivery time and drivers' safety since food delivery sites' algorithms work out routes and times based on the pursuit of maximum profit and the largest market share possible.
Danger of timeframe
Guan Yin (Xinmin Evening News): The article claimed that food delivery, driven by food delivery sites' algorithms, has become a very dangerous occupation since drivers often have to run red lights, speed through traffic and take risky routes in order to avoid incurring negative reviews or reduced bonuses.
According to data from food delivery sites, drivers were given a maximum of 60 minutes to deliver food within a distance of 3 km in 2016. But by 2017, the time limit was cut to 45 minutes, while in 2018, it dropped to 39 minutes. Meanwhile, data from the Shanghai police department showed that by the beginning of this year, the police had handled some 43,000 traffic violation cases involving food delivery people.
Food delivery sites' algorithms are focused on delivery time. Late delivery is liable to incur negative reviews for the drivers, declining income and ultimately, termination. As long as this rigid measuring system remains, drivers will never see improvement in their working conditions.
Speed should not be the only criterion for food delivery service. To sustain long-term and high-quality service, it is necessary to rationally distribute costs and design the service.
Editorial (www.rednet.cn): At the end of 2017, the technical team of Meituan pointed out in an article on upgrading the delivery system that thanks to better algorithms, delivery capacity loss dropped by 19 percent, which meant that the work of five delivery people could be done by four. It indicated that the goal was efficiency and cost saving.
In other words, cutting delivery time is to attract more customers and save more costs so that the company can make bigger profits. Superficially, drivers are manipulated by algorithms, but actually, it is capital that is tightening its chokehold on them. Thus, their safety, or the safety of those sharing the streets with them, is not taken into account by corporate profit.
At the same time, the convenience brought about by digital technologies is making customers increasingly picky. They are always ready to jump on better service provided by another supplier, including food delivery services. As a result, food delivery sites fiercely compete for customers.
It's fine that they try to offer the speediest and best service, but this must be based on the science of algorithms. Sites should not infinitely bend to customer demand. They should not pressure their drivers to deliver food to customers within 5 minutes, even though customers are asking for it.
Food delivery sites keep shortening their delivery time to the point that now it is so extremely tight that a lot of drivers have to violate traffic rules to meet customer demand.
Ele.me is now giving customers a choice to wait for 5 or 10 minutes more for the arrival of their food. By doing so, it is transferring the accountability for putting drivers in dangerous situations to the customer. The company is demanding that customers sympathize with drivers, as it pretends to have no role in the situation.
Balance three parties
Ye Dan (Nanfang Daily): It's not news that food delivery people violate traffic rules due to rigid regulations imposed by food delivery sites' evaluation system. The key to getting out of this quagmire is to strike a balance among drivers' income, sites' evaluation, customers' satisfaction and industrial competition.
Cutthroat competition between food delivery companies benefits the customer, since the quicker food is delivered, the better for the consumer. However, this also forces drivers to deliver faster and faster. To spur their drivers, food delivery sites link their speed to performance appraisals. As a result, drivers have to weave perilously through traffic every day, risking their life in order to deliver food as quickly as possible.
Ma Jihua (zhuanlan.zhihu.com): There is an intense battle in China for food delivery market shares, so it's not easy for industrial titans to forge reforms at this critical moment. However, the dire situation facing delivery people is also obvious and complicated. But it's impossible to improve their working conditions by just blaming the companies. Food delivery is a modern service; there is nothing wrong with using algorithms since this is a result of enhanced social productivity.
Being a delivery person is a tough job, but still many people choose to do it. Many of them are in the mid- to high-income group in some cities, earning more than assembly line workers. Therefore, the spotlight shouldn't be just on their hardships, but also on the relatively "high returns" of their job.
Both consumers and drivers have the right to choose. To make delivery safer and allow drivers to have a better work life is society's aspiration. But in real life, there is a big price to be paid by the drivers: They will see their wages decline, leading to fewer people joining the delivery army. As a result, consumers will have to wait much longer for their food. The real issue is finding a balance that all sides can accept.
A key factor in the surge in the food delivery industry is its rising efficiency. Three years of all-around inputs have shortened the delivery time by 10 minutes in China. Thus, we are not so naïve to believe that either Meituan or Ele.me will go back to three years ago.
To extend delivery time will increase business costs and consumer dissatisfaction. Algorithms will continue to push up the efficiency of the food delivery industry, otherwise cost hikes will have to be transferred to food prices, leading to a reduction in orders and lower wages for drivers.
For example, at Ele.me, food is required to be delivered to consumers in 30 minutes within a short distance, but in cities where there is a lot of traffic and the landscape is complicated, the time limit is 40 minutes, with weather conditions also taken into consideration.
Ultimately, drivers' interests should be better reflected in the design of systems and their performance assessments. And delivery companies should gradually give up the principle of always putting customers' interests first. In the long run, more care should be given to drivers and their working conditions.
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo