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    A Food Courier’s Pursuit of Equal Treatment

    Delivery rider Liang Ningning filed a lawsuit after a Beijing residential community told him to use the “back entrance,” to highlight the everyday discrimination facing food and parcel couriers.

    A food courier in brightly colored uniform parks up in front of an office building and runs inside. It’s a scene repeated in towns and cities across China myriad times a day — only on July 14, in Beijing, Liang Ningning wasn’t rushing to deliver someone’s lunch; he was looking for a lawyer.

    Three months earlier, Liang had filed a lawsuit against the property management company of a large residential community in the capital’s Chaoyang District, claiming that its refusal to allow delivery drivers to enter through its main gate was discrimination and a violation of his rights. In his spare time, he’d been seeking legal assistance to help win his case.

    During his search, to ensure he found the right law firm, he’d visit each one wearing his work uniform, which is in the bright-yellow colors of Meituan, a major food delivery app. If he was turned away at the door by security, which often happens to couriers, he knew instantly they wouldn’t understand his cause.

    That day in July, Beijing Aishen Law Firm agreed to represent him, and about a week later Liang was preparing for his first hearing at the district’s Olympic Village People’s Court. He of course insisted on wearing his Meituan overalls to court to prove that, contrary to popular opinion, clothes do not make the man.

    ‘Following orders’

    The residential community at the center of Liang’s lawsuit covers about 250,000 square meters and contains 11 high-rise apartment blocks. “Sometimes there are lots of orders in a day, and sometimes there are none,” he says.

    For each order, takeout delivery apps such as Meituan and will provide riders — known in Chinese as waimaiyuan — with a route from the food outlet to their destination. In the case of this community, couriers are always directed to its west gate, the main entrance, according to Liang. However, he says that security guards began refusing to let them through, insisting they instead park in front of the northeast gate, which is seen as the “back entrance.”

    Food delivery riders are paid per delivery and are required to complete orders in a set time, with platforms issuing fines for late arrivals. Liang says using this alternative gate adds to the route and means orders will usually “time out,” resulting in the rider receiving a fine of 3 yuan ($0.40).

    Liang tried to resolve the situation himself, he says. “I directly asked the guards why they would let other people in but not us. They replied that it was out of their hands, that they were just following orders.” The property management office is located close to the northeast gate, but Liang lacks confidence in being able to express his thoughts clearly, so he never went inside.

    On Sept. 28, Liang met with a reporter from Shanghai-based outlet The Paper in Beijing’s central business district, well outside of his usual delivery area. In the afternoon sun, the glass facades of the area’s sleek modern buildings looked almost translucent. As Liang, dressed in his work uniform, walked inside one of the buildings, his shoulders visibly stiffened.

    He shares that a large state-owned enterprise that he often visits doesn’t allow couriers inside, nor will it put a table at the entrance for riders to leave takeout deliveries, meaning they need to wait downstairs and hold the food until the customer comes to collect it. 

    When he first started working as a waimaiyuan, he was unfailingly polite, he says. Once, a customer who was annoyed that their food was taking too long called to berate him. “I just kept apologizing,” he recalls. But now he’s a lot firmer with people. When someone complains that he’s too slow, he just tells them that he needs to deliver orders one by one and leaves it at that. The delivery software allows couriers to send only real-time photos to customers to prove that their food was delivered to their door or to a designated area, but what Liang would like to be able to do is send them a screenshot of his interface to show how many orders are waiting — then, he assumes, they might be more understanding.

    No home comfort

    Liang is originally from a village in the central Henan province and only moved to Beijing in 2021. Before that, he lived in Nantong, Jiangsu province, where he took on various jobs. He says that the capital is relatively tolerant of electric scooters; police rarely stop riders for speeding or heading the wrong direction down the street, and at most they will let people off with a warning. He sees this as the city “showing leniency toward common laborers” like himself.

    He’s generally enthusiastic about his job, and is grateful to Meituan for providing him with an opportunity. He found that earning a decent salary on a factory assembly line requires maintaining a good relationship with the manager, but social interaction is not his strong suit.

    Initially, after starting as a food courier, Liang would juggle 10 orders or more during the lunchtime rush, dashing from place to place. He would climb nearly 100 flights of stairs a day, and after work he’d fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. He was earning over 10,000 yuan a month, but after a while it became too much. Despite opposition from his manager, he switched to a more relaxed shift pattern.

    Liang says riders feel they have no influence in how the delivery system works. It can sometimes be impossible for riders to get through to the platform’s customer service hotline, and even if they do, the operator might simply hang up without saying a word, he says. “It’s pointless contacting customer service when we experience an unreasonable route or obstacles in our path. The routes are all decided according to the algorithm. How can us couriers explain these things on our own to such a big company?”

    The navigation system used by Meituan and is similar to mapping software, with a line showing riders a route from the collection point to the destination. If Liang takes a wrong turn, the system sometimes suggests that he turn around and ride the wrong way down the road, and he will usually follow the instruction. However, at the same time, the system will flash an alert reminding riders that it’s only a suggested route and that they should obey traffic laws.

    In his free time, Liang likes to browse news apps, and he says he often comes across stories about food and parcel couriers being “picked on.” He’s had similar experiences himself. One evening, he accidentally snagged a dog’s leash with his e-scooter, frightening the animal, and the owner’s friend began to curse so aggressively that Liang decided to call the police. When officers arrived to calm the situation, though, he backed down and decided not to argue his case.

    Liang says that, when he was younger, he was less passive and would always call out injustice. Around the age of 15, he took on his technical school after it attempted to skim his salary from a summer job at a factory it had helped arrange. He took the matter to the police and the local labor bureau, eventually receiving 200 yuan in compensation.

    Courting controversy

    When dealing with overly strict residential communities, couriers say it is possible to “game the system” as long as other riders are available. One of Liang’s colleagues says he avoids the community Liang is suing at all costs — whenever he receives an order, he tries to transfer it to someone else or cancel it. “If you really can’t get out of it, you just have to grit your teeth and get on with it,” he jokes.

    Some riders even prefer to call the customer to tell them that their food has been lost and to offer a refund, paying them directly through WeChat, he says, adding that they will eat the food themselves, as it works out better than getting a fine and affecting subsequent deliveries.

    Delivery rider Wang Hai says: “We’ve told the company, called the 12345 citizens’ advice hotline, and spoken to the property management office. We’ve explained that other places give riders 30 minutes for deliveries, and that this community is difficult to get around. So, they should give us 50 minutes, right? Otherwise, the community needs to designate some place for us to leave the food.”

    The attorney who eventually took Liang’s case, Liu Fei, initially advised his client to submit an administrative complaint, but Liang explained that he had already contacted the local trade union, which had failed to resolve the issue.

    “I told Liang that, even if he was successful in his lawsuit, it might be difficult to get any court order implemented. Plus, his case was against only one community; what happens at the next one?” Liu says. He was concerned when he first heard the details of the case, as it relates to personality rights, which is a complicated area in Chinese law. However, he could also understand how Liang felt, as he recalled a viral news story about a travel company in the southwestern Yunnan province that had banned lawyers and journalists from using its tour services for fear of them being “too picky.”

    Liu says that Liang filed his lawsuit “in a fit of pique,” submitting a template form he’d found online and demanding 12,000 yuan in moral damages, which compensates for emotional distress. If he wins the case, Liang plans to use the money to help his peers who are facing financial hardship.

    Gates opened

    When Liu and his colleagues visited the community in July to investigate, the west gate had been reopened to delivery riders. They were unable to clarify why. At the hearing on July 24, the property management company claimed that the sheer volume of couriers was causing congestion at the main entrance, so the company had prohibited them from parking there. By Liu’s observation, however, the congestion was more down to ride-hailing services and taxis picking up and dropping off passengers. Both sides argued their case in court but failed to reach a consensus.

    The Paper’s reporter visited the community the day after the hearing. The west gate was still open to couriers, and there were scooters parked — some haphazardly — around where residents enter and exit and where taxis drop passengers. A security guard said that residents and visitors on scooters can ride into the community, but couriers had to dismount and walk in, though he didn’t know why. At the northeast gate, a guard explained that riders weren’t allowed to go in and out via the main gate because there wasn’t enough parking space for scooters.

    The community also has a south gate that’s more difficult to find. Here, riders delivering food can park up and walk in, but not those delivering express parcels. A guard said that if express delivery vehicles could also stop there “it’d be completely blocked up. There are children here who need to go to school using this gate.”

    On the issue of traffic congestion around large residential communities and in business districts, legal scholars and urban planning experts say that neither China’s Property Law nor other laws and regulations explicitly state that property management companies need to create designated areas to solve delivery riders’ parking problems. One legal expert even argues that the main responsibility lies with delivery companies such as Meituan and

    As for whether communities should be held accountable for the disorderly parked scooters at their gates, he adds, “this is a crossover between the private rights of communities and public authority, in this case the city government.” At a legislative level, right now, it appears that the strict planning and management of communities is unrealistic.

    For Liang, it seems, the road ahead on his mission to deliver change could be a bumpy one.

    Reported by Ge Mingning and Xue Yuting.

    (Due to privacy concerns, Wang Hai is a pseudonym.)

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Ni and Craig McIntosh.

    (Header image: A delivery rider cleans his windshield, Beijing, Nov. 5, 2023. Xue Jun/Beijing News/IC)