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Ele.me to give customers option to wait longer for food deliveries after backlash over risky conditions for riders

Many food delivery riders in China risk their lives to meet deadlines even under extreme weather conditions, according to a report that has gone viral.

Chinese food delivery giant Ele.me said on Tuesday that it will launch a function that allows customers to indicate whether they are willing to wait up to ten minutes longer for their deliveries in response to public backlash over the treatment of couriers.

On Monday, Chinese magazine Renwu published an investigation that found that many riders violate traffic laws and risk their lives to meet ever-shortening delivery windows.

The move comes after an investigative story by Renwu that went viral on Monday, garnering over one million views on WeChat soon after it was published.

The report, based on interviews with over 30 delivery riders from Ele.me and Meituan Dianping—which collectively dominate 90% of the food delivery market in China, according to market research firm Trustdata—discussed the riders’ working conditions and the mechanisms that determine their wages.

Many food delivery riders risk their lives to meet deadlines even under extreme weather conditions, according to the report, which added that platforms like Ele.me and Meituan use algorithms to reduce waiting times for customers without considering the safety of couriers.

“Being a courier, you need to race against death, ‘battle’ with traffic cops, and run red lights,” the report said.

Meituan, which accounted for more than 68% of the market as of the second quarter of 2020 according to Trustdata, declined to comment.

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An article on the official blog of Meituan’s tech team states that riders should aim to deliver each order within 30 minutes after it is submitted, which would include the time for restaurants to accept the order, prepare the food, and distribute it to riders, then for riders to travel to the delivery location, sometimes having to climb up several flights of stairs in the process.

Unlike Western economies where the so-called gig economy has been hit by layoffs and the loss of temporary contracts, flexible work opportunities in China—particularly at logistics companies where delivery staff and drivers are in hot demand—are turning into a godsend for many who have lost steady work during the coronavirus pandemic.

There were more than 4.6 million riders supporting the Chinese food delivery industry in the second quarter, according to Trustdata.

However, the flexible employment model can also mean unstable income and missing out on some of the protections that may come with a long-term employment contract.

“It’s a common phenomenon [in China] that food delivery riders violate traffic rules [to meet deadlines],” said Chen Liteng, an analyst from e-commerce research company China E-Commerce Research Center. “On one hand, it’s because of the strict requirements for delivery time on these platforms . . . on the other hand, food delivery is a ‘more work, more pay’ job. The eagerness of riders to earn more is another reason.”

Ele.me, which is owned by the South China Morning Post’s parent company Alibaba Group Holding, said in response to the recent backlash that riders with a good record will not be punished if they do not deliver on time for one or two orders.

On social media, most reactions to the Renwu story were supportive of food delivery riders, with netizens saying they would rather wait a little longer for their food than risk couriers’ lives.

“Most of my friends say they don’t care whether their food is delivered two minutes faster or not, and they will not get angry if it is ten minutes late,” one user said in a comment that was liked over 29,000 times on WeChat. “In fact, the platform could be more lenient with couriers. We really are not in such a hurry.”

“We’re exploiting the safety of our riders while enjoying the convenience,” another popular comment on WeChat read. “I’d rather the delivery be slower.”

However, Chen said that while the awareness generated by the Renwu story may ease the pressure on riders a bit, users’ demands will not change in the longer term.

“In the end, this is a balance of interests between the food delivery platforms and the riders,” Chen said. “Comprising the rights of consumers is a solution, but it’s not reasonable and cannot solve the fundamental problem.”

This article was originally published by the South China Morning Post.