Fight the algorithms: Chinese delivery people on the wire

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BEIJING: Delivering a piping hot meal exactly at the promised time, Chinese delivery driver Zhuang Zhenhua triumphantly said his job was done through the Meituan app – and was immediately fined half his earnings.

One problem meant he falsely registered it as being late and faced an automatic penalty – one of the many ways, he said, that delivery companies exploit millions of workers then. even that the sector is booming.

Authorities have launched a crackdown on companies like Meituan and Alibaba’s Ele.me to ensure basic labor protections such as proper compensation, insurance, and algorithms that effectively encourage dangerous driving.

But more than a dozen drivers told AFP there had been little change on the ground.

Often the only way to complete orders on time is “to go really fast … pass red lights, drive on the wrong side of the road,” Zhuang said.

“At first (the app allowed) 40 to 50 minutes to complete an order – now for an order within a two kilometer radius, with the same distance and time as before, we are given 30 minutes,” said he explained.

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns have skyrocketed demand for meal delivery services: the industry is now worth 664 billion yuan (RM 432.37 billion), according to a report by the China Hospitality Association .

The country’s competitive app-based services have spread to almost every aspect of modern life, with digitally savvy consumers accustomed to instant service and fast delivery through a flow of cheap labor. .

But after years of unrestricted growth, Chinese Big Tech is under fire from Beijing with Tencent, Didi and Meituan all targeted for anti-monopoly rules.

Earlier this year, Alibaba was fined a record US $ 2.8 billion (RM11.67 billion) after an investigation found it had abused its dominant position in the market.

Lives in danger

The public is increasingly concerned about the amount of data managed by popular apps, including food delivery platforms, and Chinese authorities have asked the cyberspace watchdog to examine how algorithms are being used by consumers. technological conglomerates.

Shortened delivery times have also caused more accidents in recent years, amid promises of fast service.

Globally, the industry faces a scrutiny of the treatment of the self-employed, who experience low wages, few employee rights and are often hired through agencies to avoid providing benefits.

China’s odd-job economy now accounts for nearly a quarter of its workforce – 200 million people are in “flexible jobs,” according to government figures.

The plight of food delivery men and truck drivers came to public attention after low compensation was offered to the family of a courier who died delivering meals for Ele.me in Beijing, and a second set himself on fire in a dispute with the company over compensation.

Although hailed as an essential service, especially during the height of the pandemic, drivers earn an average of only 7,700 yuan (RM 5,014) per month.

Zhuang said many feel they are putting their lives at risk because of the algorithms apps use to determine the allowed route and travel time before drivers incur a “late delivery” penalty.

Another biker, who gave his last name as Liu, told AFP that the allotted delivery time included the time needed to prepare the food, something beyond his control but which could have an impact on His salary.

“If there are any delays, the runners take responsibility,” said the 40-year-old, adding that the system made it difficult to reject orders from slow traders.

“There is no point in complaining,” said runner Chen Mingqiang, 50.

“Nobody wants to pay”

Meituan, which has more than 628 million users, said it calculates the time needed for a trip in four ways and allocates the longest of those options and includes a buffer.

In a written statement, the company insisted that such decisions were made “with the safety of drivers being the first priority, and also to meet the needs of consumers” and that drivers could challenge unfair fines.

Last month, after China’s cyberspace regulator laid out plans for tighter controls on tech companies, Meituan said it would optimize its “algorithm strategy” and roll out larger allowances to help couriers avoid dangerous working conditions.

Kendra Schaefer, of Beijing-based consulting firm Trivium, said the lack of transparency about how platforms are coded to determine driver requirements and compensation was a serious issue.

“An algorithm is meant to maximize efficiency, unfortunately as we see as society modernizes algorithms maximize efficiency at the expense of humans,” she said.

“Everyone wants drivers to be treated better, but nobody wants to pay for it. “

The sector relies heavily on migrant workers – who are often low-skilled and have come to towns in the rural provinces in the hope of making money.

For many, there are few alternatives to employment.

Zhuang conceded, “If I had a choice, I certainly wouldn’t work as a delivery driver. It is dangerous, high risk work. – AFP


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