Food delivery drivers have become a fixture of China’s streets — and occasionally its sidewalks — in recent years. In early 2019, Meituan, one of the country’s two largest delivery services, announced that it had employed more than 2.7 million drivers during the previous year alone.
The bulk of this delivery armada is made up of young male migrant workers. According to Meituan, the majority of the company’s drivers were born in the 1980s or ’90s, over 90% of them are male, 77% are from the countryside, and only 15% have university degrees.
Even just a decade ago, these same young men would likely be working in factories or on construction sites. When asked what attracted them to the delivery industry, nearly half of the drivers answered “freedom” — the ability to set their own schedules. But it’s unclear whether the gig economy is truly freeing, or whether it simply replaces one form of exploitation with another. To get a better idea of what life in the delivery industry is really like, I decided to become a Meituan driver in the southern city of Shenzhen and see for myself.
Meituan peppers its recruitment posters with slogans like, “Take orders whenever you like, get paid anytime.” The drivers I spoke with echoed this language, describing the job as allowing you to “work whenever you want and quit whenever you want.” Many explicitly contrasted driving with factory work, explaining that their working arrangements are more flexible than those of factory workers.
A Meituan recruitment ad for crowdsourced delivery riders. The ad claims drivers can earn up to 13,000 yuan per month while working flexibly. From the company’s official website
In practice, however, the benefits of the company’s much-touted flexibility are less clear. Meituan divides its drivers into two categories: “specialist” — zhuansong — and “crowdsourced” — zhongbao. Specialist drivers, who are recruited through an official interview process and sign contracts with Meituan, are like regular employees anywhere else. They work ﬁxed hours covering company-designated areas.
New specialist drivers are assigned a trainer, and they’re given uniforms, helmets, raincoats, and thermoses. They have to provide their most important piece of equipment, the electric scooter, themselves. In Shenzhen, specialist drivers are paid 6 yuan ($0.86) per fulfilled order, plus a base salary of 1,500 yuan a month. They are also usually only expected to work eight hours each day, though this varies depending on the city. Their orders come directly from the company through an official dispatch channel.
When you think of the stereotypical freewheeling delivery driver, you’re probably thinking of the second type, crowdsourced drivers. Members of this group don’t undergo any sort of interview or recruitment process; they simply register on the company’s app, provide their ID number and a certiﬁcate of good health, and complete a tutorial and online exam.
Instead of waiting for the company to assign orders, crowdsourced drivers must compete with each other to “seize” jobs. For each fulfilled order within 3 kilometers, they are paid 5 yuan. Although Meituan offers slightly more money to fulfill orders farther away, most drivers prefer to work within a narrow radius. While this isn’t much, with no fixed schedule, no boss, and no assigned tasks, it does seem to promise young drivers the freedom they desire.
Freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, however, and the job proved far more difficult than I expected. I consistently failed to seize orders, partly because there were far fewer than I’d imagined, and partly because the few orders that did appear were quickly snapped up before I could click “seize.”
Even after staring at my screen for several hours and refreshing the app page hundreds of times, I only managed to get five orders — worth 40 yuan — on my first day, most of them to remote areas. And I had to pay 5 yuan back to the company for being a few seconds late on one order, meaning I took home just 35 yuan for a day’s work.
When I asked experienced crowdsourced drivers what was going on, they told me that a newbie like me doesn’t stand a chance. On average, a delivery driver might seize between 20 and 30 orders in a day. Only the top drivers — those familiar with all the roads, who have good relationships with security guards in the nearby neighborhoods, and who know how to steal orders using cheating apps or who are willing to break traﬃc regulations — have a chance to make a decent living in the industry by fulfilling 50 or more orders a day.
To become one of these “crowdsourced driver gods,” as the drivers call them, requires not only skill, but also time and effort. Gods typically work over 15 hours per day.
Meanwhile, Meituan keeps its drivers on their toes with a points-based ranking system that pushes them to work harder. The higher your rank, the sooner Meituan will respond to your complaints and the more privileges you receive, including the right to filter out unprofitable orders or even priority when seizing new orders. The only way to level up is to make more deliveries or to work in bad weather, when the company offers double points. And you can lose this status at any time. Top-ranked drivers in Shenzhen must fulfill more than 1,400 orders a month to maintain their positions.
Most drivers I spoke to were less concerned with attaining godhood than simply scraping by. A number told me that an ordinary crowdsourced driver cannot hope to make a living by driving alone. Meituan’s own figures reveal that 35% of drivers — a number that includes full-time specialists — have other sources of income. Of these part-timers, 20% are factory workers, 14% own a small business, and 14% work as postmen or deliver packages for other companies.
Online, veteran drivers warn newbies about the risks of trying to make a living in the industry. Many complaints center around the difficulty of seizing orders and the low pay per order. Some even claim that being a Meituan driver is actually more exhausting than factory work, not to mention less stable.
The plight of China’s food delivery drivers mirrors that of workers in the new gig economy worldwide. While on the surface the lack of rigid schedules may seem freeing, in some respects they are even more exploitative than before. By design, the new system only benefits those who work the hardest, pitting drivers against each other and depriving them of the very freedom that drew them to the industry.
In the words of one top-ranked driver: “They want both freedom and money, but how can that happen? There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
With contributions from Li Xueshi.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: A delivery driver with a helmet shaped like Meituan’s mascot, a kangaroo, in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Nov. 28, 2016. Sha Lang/VCG)