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    Food Fight: The Competitive World of ‘Last-Mile Runners’

    Banned from parking outside skyscrapers, food delivery riders in Shenzhen have come to rely on a group of self-employed, mostly middle-aged couriers to complete their orders.
    Jun 14, 2024#labor#economy

    Xie Mingxia keeps her gaze fixed firmly on the traffic. The second she sees a scooter rider in a light blue or bright yellow bike helmet, the trademark apparel of China’s food delivery couriers, she will rush over to intercept them, shouting, “Which floor, which floor?” Quick reactions are essential, as she’s often competing with about a dozen other women to land each rider’s business.

    It’s around noon, peak time for Xie and the other “last-mile runners” gathered outside the entrance to the SEG Plaza, a skyscraper in the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, Guangdong province. These self-employed delivery workers, mostly women in their 50s, bridge the gap between takeout couriers on the ground and hungry customers dotted throughout the building’s 72 floors.

    As soon as Xie grabs a takeout bag, she marks it with the recipient’s name and room number, and has the courier make a payment by scanning her QR code, which she hangs from a lanyard around her neck, before dashing inside to deliver the food. Xie earns 2 yuan (30 cents) per order, although for bumper loads and grocery deliveries she will negotiate for up to 10 yuan.

    The narrow streets around the skyscraper are like a battleground at times, with cries of “Give it to me” and “I’ll take it” filling the air. Each arriving courier is swarmed by women, and until the rider actually scans someone’s QR code, everything is fair game — orders can even be snatched out of another person’s hand.

    The 355.8-meter-tall SEG Plaza is arguably the best-known skyscraper in the city’s Huaqiangbei subdistrict, home to one of the largest electronics markets in the world. The building’s interior is like a maze, with countless intersections. For example, the 45th floor has 16 elevators with different purposes and access ranges; some serve upper or middle floors, while others are reserved for freight or fire and rescue services. There are also unmarked “mystery elevators” that only insiders know how to use.

    Only last-mile runners can complete the final leg of food orders to the people working inside, as takeout couriers are not allowed to park their scooters at the ground-floor entrance. “Besides, during the lunchtime rush, it’s almost impossible to get into an elevator,” says one courier. “Going up and down (to deliver one meal) takes too much time — I’d be left with a load of overdue deliveries. It’s just not feasible.”

    Takeout couriers rely on runners like Xie to complete orders at about 30 tall buildings across Huaqiangbei. SEG Plaza is one of the most profitable spots, with couriers earning at least 100 yuan from food deliveries on an average afternoon.

    Most of the people working as last-mile runners don’t know each other’s names — instead, they identify each other by their native region. Xie, known to her peers as “Hunan woman” because she’s from the central Hunan province, is considered to be exceptionally capable at her job, which she considers a reflection of her hard work: having an aggressive approach means a higher income, she says. The 52-year-old previously worked for 17 years in a Guangzhou wig factory, where she would clock in early morning and work late into the night.

    After quitting that job, Xie opened a cellphone shop in Huaqiangbei with her husband, refurbishing and selling secondhand handsets. However, when the pandemic struck, their business struggled, forcing them both to take jobs as last-mile runners to make ends meet — Xie handled the takeout couriers and her husband traveled up and down the skyscraper delivering the food to customers. Later, her husband decided to become a food delivery rider, to increase his salary, and now the couple works throughout the year, rarely taking a day off.

    In this world, the takeout courier is king as they wield the power to choose who completes their orders. First choice is always a runner with whom they are familiar and can rely on not to make mistakes, with people from their native province next in line. The older workers often don’t speak Mandarin well, and their accents reveal where they grew up almost instantly.

    Takeout courier Meng Lingling says the more aggressive runners get the lion’s share of orders. When she’s busy, she doesn’t have time to think about fairness; she just gives the delivery to whoever snatches it first. If several of them fight over it, she doesn’t intervene. She just pays her fee as quickly as possible so she can get back on the road.

    Zhang Yuying is a petite woman in her 60s with degenerative arthritis. Some takeout couriers favor her, giving her an extra yuan for each order because they know she’ll only collect one or two orders before heading into the building to deliver them. Some of the more able-bodied women will assure drivers that they will deliver an order straight away and pretend to head inside but then return to the street to grab more orders as soon as the rider leaves, only completing the deliveries when their accumulated burden is almost too much to carry. This is a common delivering-in-bulk strategy to maximize efficiency.

    Some couriers prefer to give their deliveries to runners already loaded with orders, as they are more likely to soon start their trip into the building. They are wary of anyone empty-handed, fearing that their order is liable to face a lengthy delay. Late deliveries can result in fines for couriers, depending on the takeout platform’s policies, such as 50 yuan for a bad review, 200 yuan for a complaint, and 500 yuan for a canceled overdue order.

    Snatching at success

    Meng, who is based at a nearby dispatch station, understands the importance of the role played by last-mile runners. During the lunchtime rush, the station’s 130 drivers must deliver up to 3,000 orders, with each driver handling eight to 12 orders simultaneously, and sometimes as many as 18. Drivers who have signed an exclusive contract with one of the main delivery platforms, either Meituan or, are unable to decline an order. If they went into the buildings themselves, they could waste 10 precious minutes just waiting for an elevator. In that same time, a runner could complete seven or eight orders.

    Delivery data such as efficiency, complaints, and punctuality rates all directly affect the riders’ salaries, and they are equally important for the dispatch station. Thanks to workers like Xie, the couriers at Meng’s station can each complete more than 40 orders a day on average.

    Once an order is passed to a last-mile runner, a rider will mark it as “complete” in the online delivery system. In reality, this is a risky move, as it violates the platform’s policies. However, most customers working in SEG Plaza are used to the longer wait times, so few will file complaints. Their compliance has provided space for this ecosystem to grow.

    To maintain a good service record, Meng delivers 70 to 100 orders daily. Her income starts at 6.9 yuan per order and increases to 8 yuan if she exceeds a quota of 1,000 orders in a month. During the most intense periods, she often doesn’t eat her first meal of the day until 8 or 9 o’clock at night, staving off hunger with Mizone sports drinks.

    When complaints do arise, it can be hard to distinguish whether the takeout courier or their “substitute” is responsible. With issues like food being delivered to the wrong person, spills, and “bad service attitudes,” it’s generally the food delivery riders who suffer the consequences. In such instances, they will usually take note of the troublesome runner and refuse to give them orders in the future.

    SEG Plaza’s first to 10th floors are occupied by small, independent stalls selling electronics, whose owners tend to stack merchandise haphazardly, sometimes blocking the narrow corridors and creating a maze of dead ends. The higher floors are occupied by the offices of nearly 800 companies; although these are marked with room numbers, many of the numbers are hidden behind decorations. Before becoming a security guard, 31-year-old Dachao spent a week working as a last-mile runner in the building. To map out each floor, he photographed every shop and made a chart. Each time he received an order, he could immediately find his destination, saving time on unnecessary detours. However, such high-tech methods are not so easy for older generations.

    Zhang Yuying is one of the most meticulous last-mile runners in Huaqiangbei. She moved to Shenzhen with her husband after retirement and discovered her current job by chance while getting her phone repaired at SEG Plaza. Initially, whenever she got lost, she found that her peers were unable to give helpful directions, so she had to learn through trial and error. She often stayed in the building late into the night, wandering around until she’d covered every possible route.

    Still, wayfinding is simple compared with dealing with people. Hailing from Xuzhou, in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, Zhang says she has found people in Shenzhen to be more aggressive. She’s experienced several clashes with fellow runners over snatched orders, with one incident resulting in Zhang calling the police after an angry rival repeatedly punched her, injuring her arm. The other woman agreed to hand over 100 yuan for Zhang to drop the matter.

    Winning mentality

    SEG Plaza also has a group of workers who haul goods for merchants and are familiar with every inch of the building. One of them is Guan Xiaoyue, a native of the southwestern Sichuan province, who moved to Shenzhen almost two decades ago with about a dozen fellow villagers to work in factories. She remembers toiling for extremely long hours back then with barely any time to sleep.

    It was a period when a seemingly endless stream of rags-to-riches stories was emerging in the city. A senior Huaqiangbei official once boasted, “This tiny area of 1.45 square kilometers has produced over 50 billionaires.”

    Guan eventually found work hauling goods for merchants at SEG Plaza, the area’s hottest electronics market. There was no time to rest — whenever there were goods to be delivered, she would spring into action, and there was always a long line in front of the freight elevator. She witnessed firsthand the rise of the last-mile runners. In their free time, Guan and her colleagues would play cards under the trees outside the building; about 10 years ago, takeout couriers began asking if they could help them deliver food to the office workers inside, offering 3 yuan per order. Initially, the women ignored them, preferring to focus on their more lucrative hauling work, which earned them about 30 yuan per trip.

    However, as couriers spread the word and requests increased, the hauling business began to decline. So, the women began accepting “last-mile jobs.” At first, they were the only ones taking orders, and they could easily earn up to 80 yuan in an afternoon. Gradually, more people started showing up and competition increased, bringing average individual earnings down to about 40 yuan a day.

    Guangdong native Wang Hong particularly resents outsiders working as last-mile runners. “This place is our turf,” she insists. Pointing out Xie, one of her biggest rivals, she says: “How long has she been here? But she’s acting like she owns the place. She gets upset when we take orders. Who does she think she is?”

    The runners on duty today include SEG Plaza cleaning staff who haven’t even bothered to change out of their uniforms, heading directly outside after finishing their shift to begin collecting deliveries. Some vendors from the building’s lower floors also deliver orders in the evenings to earn “grocery money” before heading home. One couple only delivers during the lunchtime rush; the wife also works part time as a maid, cleaning and cooking for her clients, while the husband has a job at a restaurant, finishing at 2 a.m.

    The once-glorious SEG Plaza now shelters many people with nowhere else to go. Some runners prefer delivering at night, when many of the office workers begin returning home and the lights in the building darken one by one. This allows them to avoid the intensity of the day shift, when orders are being fought over tooth and nail.

    All this plays out against the backdrop of an advertisement that repeatedly flashes on the screens along SEG Plaza’s corridors. The slogan reads, “Working hard will make you a winner in life.”

    Reported by Jiang Wanru.

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

    Translator: Carrie Davies; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: A last-mile runner waits for orders outside SEG Plaza in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, July 2023. Jiang Wanru/White Night Workshop)