Delivery Drivers: Stuck In the System

Over the pandemic and lockdown measures, online orders, couriers and delivery drivers have been a lifeline around the world for life to have a semblance of normality, nowhere is this more so than in China, where quarantine procedures have been one of the strictest.  One of the articles that went viral this autumn is a People (renwu) magazine coverage of the condition of takeaway delivery driver and the extraordinary pressures they’ve having to face. This article is, of course, written in Chinese, but it’s a piece that the world needs to read. So I present an extract from the beginning of the piece. It’s the end of the year now, but as the virus rages on, we’re still having to rely on these unsung heroes. So I hope that after reading this article in translation, you’ll think about these people over Christmas, while enjoying the festive treats that have been delivered to your door, and opening gifts that were bought at the click of a button, and perhaps hold back from sending that complaint on the app, the next time your goods are a day or two late. Thank you to Radii for their coverage.


by Lai Youxuan

Behind a series of figures published by the Department of Traffic Police, is the “food delivery service has become a high-risk profession” debate.

How did an industry that has generated such enormous value in a sector, also be the generator of social problems? In order to find the answer to this question, the People team spent almost half a year investigating, and through exchanges with about a dozen takeaway drivers across the country, as well participants along the delivery chains and sociologists, the answer gradually began to surface.

This article is very long, but through the detailed analysis of a system, we hope to encourage more people to think about this problem: what ought to be the place of algorithms in this digital age?”

Order Received

Another two minutes disappeared in the system.

E’LeMa (Hungry?) driver Zhu Dahe clearly remembered that day in October 2019, when he saw the delivery time for a new order, and his hands, which were still gripping the handle bars of his bike, began to sweat. “2 miles, delivery time: 30 minutes” – he’d been delivering food in Beijing for two years, before this, the delivery time for the same distance had been 32 minutes, but from that day, two minutes had disappeared.

At around the same time, a Meituan driver was having the same “missing time” experience. This driver in Chongqing discovered that the delivery time of an order the same distance away, had changed from 50 minutes to 35 minutes; and for his roommate who was in the same line of work, the new maximum delivery time for a 3-mile order was only 30 minutes.

This wasn’t the first time that time had ‘disappeared’ from the system.

Jin Zhuangzhuang has worked as manager at a Meituan courier office for three years, he clearly remembers, that from 2016 to 2019, he’d received 3 notices from the app to increase delivery speed: 2016, the time limit for delivering 3 miles was 1 hour; in 2017, it became 45 minutes; by 2018, it had again shrunk by 7 minutes, now set to 38 minutes. According to related figures, in 2019 the delivery time across all of China’s food takeaway services had fallen by 10 minutes from three years ago.

For its maker, having a system that could relentlessly “swallow” time, was something worthy of praise, a demonstration of the depth of the algorithm’s abilities – at Meituan, this “AI Distribution System” is referred to as “the Super Brain”, E’LeMa reverentially call it the “Arc”. In a 2016 media interview, Meituan’s founder Wang Xing expressed, “our motto is ‘Meituan Means Fast, Whatever the Order’. Our average delivery speed is just 28 minutes”.

“This”, he said, “is a demonstration of great technology”.

Yet, in practice, for the delivery driver, “improved technology” speaks of “crazy”, and “fatal”.

In the system’s settings, delivery time is the most important indicator of performance, surpassing the delivery time is not permitted, if it ever happens, it means investigation, reduced wages, even dismissal. On the Baidu forums where, many of them like to hang out, some drivers have posted, “takeaway delivery is a race with Death, a wrestle with the traffic police, and making friends with red lights”.

In order to keep reminding himself, a driver in Jiangsu even changed his account name to: Only Dogs are Late. A driver from Songjiang in Shanghai once said, for almost every delivery, he resorted to WWD, he’d done the calculations, it saves up to 5 minutes each time. According to another E’LeMa driver in Shanghai , if he doesn’t break the law, the orders he could fulfil within a day would halve.

“Drivers would never stand a chance against the System, we could only redeem the lost minutes by speeding”. A Meituan courier once told People, the “most crazy order” he’d ever taken, was 1 mile, within 20 minutes. The distance wasn’t far, but in this amount of time, he had to wait for the food to be cooked, packaged and then deliver it. That day, his bike was going so fast that his “butt kept bouncing off the seat”.

Speeding, going past red lights, driving into on-coming traffic…and other traffic-defying acts were, in the eyes of Sun Ping, assistant researcher from the Academy of Social Sciences, a kind of ‘reverse algorithm’, labour experiences that delivery drivers, under the long-term control and regulation of the system algorithm, feel compelled to undergo. And the direct consequence of this “reverse algorithm” is the rapid increase in traffic accidents among takeaway delivery drivers.

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