the Fast and the Fu­ri­ous

Male bond­ing and machismo help grease the wheels of a bil­lion­dol­lar food f ight

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story - BY DAVID DAWSON AND HATTY LIU

Driver Zhang cuts an im­pres­sive fig­ure on­line. His rat­ing on Ele.me (mean­ing “Hun­gry?”), a food-de­liv­ery app, is 91, mean­ing al­most all his 1,511 fast-food de­liv­er­ies were made on time— no mean feat given Beijing’s of­ten-mad­den­ing traf­fic, re­lent­less con­struc­tion (and de­mo­li­tion), and of­ten con­vo­luted build­ing-num­ber­ing sys­tems. His av­er­age de­liv­ery takes half an hour, from or­der to ar­rival. Th­ese along with other statis­tics are promi­nently dis­played on the de­liv­ery­man’s Uber-style pro­file, a po­tent sta­tus of both Zhang’s suc­cess and his pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion.

From down-votes to dis­agree­ments, ev­ery one of Zhang’s c cus­tomers wields a de­gree of power o over his job. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing th this when a driver, run­ning late, calls to a ask to be reg­is­tered as hav­ing ar­rived, e even when the map shows him still lost, th three blocks away. Tar­di­ness comes with c con­se­quences, in­clud­ing fines and bad fe feed­back, im­pact­ing a driver’s over­all ra rat­ing.

Zhang works for Feng­niao (“(“Hum­ming­bird”), the patented d de­liv­ery sys­tem de­vel­oped by on­line take­out plat­form Ele.me. With blue uni­forms and branded scoot­ers—in con­trast to ri­val firm Meituan de­liv­ery’s black-yel­low liv­ery—ele.me’s driv­ers can be spot­ted in their thou­sands in cities across China, like the van­guard of some moped army. The red-jack­eted ranks of search gi­ant Baidu’s de­liv­ery arm are called “Baidu Knights,” and their pro­files dec­o­rated with medals, such as “gold knight,” for ser­vice in the line of duty.

“Th­ese de­liv­ery­men are young and hot-blooded, many not well ed­u­cated, and dressed in dif­fer­ent uni­forms, so it’s easy for them to feel aver­sion to­wards their coun­ter­parts,” in­dus­try ob­server Liu Peng told Caixin in Fe­bru­ary.

This an­tag­o­nism is fur­ther en­abled by a plethora of eco­nomic and so­cial forces—caught be­tween un­for­giv­ing man­agers and im­pa­tient cus­tomers, the mi­grant men who make up China’s de­liv­ery work­force can form a strong kin­ship with their fel­low “knights” and “rid­ers,” par­tic­u­larly other mi­grants from the same re­gion.

Join­ing a com­pany is like be­ing part of a gang, Liu told TWOC. “You have your own em­blem. If you join Ele.me, you’re part of Ele. me...their suzhi [qual­ity] level is not very high, so there are fights,” says Liu. “And the more you fight with oth­ers, the more your own peo­ple are united.”

Com­pa­nies are en­gaged in fierce com­pe­ti­tion to de­liver food fastest, cheap­est. Stress lev­els are high, and en­mity can brew be­tween ri­val rid­ers who have to share routes, roads, of­ten even the same el­e­va­tors. Spats eas­ily arise—usu­ally over turf, or tit-for-tat dis­putes––as de­picted in one vi­ral video from Zhangpu, in south­east Fu­jian prov­ince. The film, shot in Fe­bru­ary, shows driv­ers from Ele.me and Meituan slug­ging it out with poles, af­ter a pla­toon of Ele.me staff at­tempted to storm Meituan’s head­quar­ters over “the right to de­liver in this ter­ri­tory,” as one brawler yells in the video.

Mil­lions of ne­ti­zens viewed the brawl in fas­ci­na­tion; for many, it was a first glimpse of the in­tense dy­nam­ics be­hind their lunch or­ders. Af­ter a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the two sides met to con­cil­i­ate and agree not to use “un­sa­vory vi­o­lent meth­ods to cap­ture the mar­ket” and cre­ate a “more pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment for com­pe­ti­tion,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment by Meituan.

Cer­tainly, de­liv­ery com­pa­nies are hop­ing for a pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment to make money—and it’s big money. Last year, the food de­liv­ery in­dus­try as a whole raked in 176 bil­lion RMB, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by a mar­ket re­search com­pany cited by the Peo­ple’s Daily On­line, a 361 per­cent in­crease over a year ear­lier. While they spe­cial­ize in food—any­thing from sushi to Sichuan cui­sine—the big­ger apps of­fer other in­gre­di­ents for a good night in, from cig­a­rettes and al­co­hol to sex toys and morn­ing-af­ter pills.

Mar­ket leader Ele.me holds 34.6 per­cent of the mar­ket share, with Meituan and Baidu de­liv­ery at 33.6 per­cent and 18.5 per­cent re­spec­tively. To­gether, the trio dom­i­nates the mar­ket and their scrappy com­peti­tors.

Ac­cord­ing to some on the front lines, though, th­ese numbers mask a busi­ness fraught with set­backs and loss. “Money?” asks Wang, a de­liv­ery­man for one of the big three, dis­cussing the state of the in­dus­try with col­leagues. “The com­pany is about to col­lapse! There are no more or­ders. You start at 10 a.m. and work un­til mid­night and you might earn 100 RMB in a day. There’s no base salary.”

When busi­ness is good—usu­ally if a driver takes around 1,000 or­ders a month—it’s pos­si­ble to make as much as 10,000 RMB but, as China Daily re­ported, th­ese kinds of salaries are far from rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Around half of China’s de­liv­ery­men earn be­tween 2,000 and 4,000 RMB, 28 per­cent earn up to 6,000 RMB, with a tiny mi­nor­ity mak­ing up­wards of 8,000 RMB, ac­cord­ing to the news­pa­per (the av­er­age salary is 6,070 RMB a month, ris­ing to 9,227 RMB in Beijing, ac­cord­ing to a na­tion­wide 2016 sur­vey by zhaopin.com, a jobs web­site).

Feng­niao of­fers its em­ploy­ees in­sur­ance, de­duct­ing the cost from their wages at 2 RMB a de­liv­ery day, but no res­i­dency per­mit or hukou, so work­ers usu­ally leave their chil­dren to be raised and ed­u­cated in their home prov­inces. Al­most all driv­ers lack le­gal aware­ness of their rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in case of a dis­pute—or worse.

Last De­cem­ber, the Beijing News cited traf­fic ac­ci­dents as the big­gest dan­ger of the job; one driver claimed at least four of his col­leagues had been killed on the road over the past year. Be­yond the risk of in­jury, there’s also the pos­si­bil­ity of hit­ting a car or pedes­trian and be­com­ing in­debted in­def­i­nitely. Cases like th­ese have pe­ri­od­i­cally made waves in me­dia, gen­er­ally ac­com­pa­nied with a tragic

back­story, though CNN re­ported in Fe­bru­ary that one guil­trid­den 17-year-old who vol­un­tar­ily con­fessed to scratch­ing a BMW in Zhengzhou, He­nan prov­ince, was re­warded 10,000 RMB cash by the driver for his hon­esty.

“All crows un­der heaven are black,” driver Wang says: De­spite the in­dus­try’s hy­per-com­pet­i­tive­ness, there’s lit­tle point try­ing to look else­where. Wang feels no great kin­ship with his col­leagues; even if his peers don’t help out, he says, that’s fine as long as they don’t cheat each other.

Some of Wang’s col­leagues are more san­guine, if equally pes­simistic about the fu­ture. “It’s a job you can do without a lot of skills,” Lin, in his 30s, re­marks. “Of all th­ese kinds of jobs, your only other op­tion is to dagong”— re­fer­ring to lowskilled man­ual la­bor, fac­tory work or ser­vice jobs. “When you dagong, you work 12 hours and you have to take or­ders from some­one. When you de­liver food, you get to be on the move, and work when you take a [food] or­der; you earn more if you take more, less if you take less.”

Still, Lin plans to change jobs. “The com­pany is not do­ing well this year,” he says. “I think it’s time for me to move to a dif­fer­ent field... they don’t cover food or lodg­ing, so af­ter you pay your rent and feed your­self, there’s not much left any­more.”

Last year, not for the first time, both Ele.me and Meituan were crit­i­cized by state broad­caster CCTV for al­low­ing il­le­gal restau­rants to use their plat­form to sell meals, prompt­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by food in­spec­tors in Beijing, Shang­hai, and Chengdu, fol­lowed by an apol­ogy from Ele.me. Black­listed restau­rants are of­ten able to relist un­der a dif­fer­ent name, how­ever, and with a sus­tained crack­down in Beijing on il­le­gal food ven­dors, the idea of op­er­at­ing incog­nito on­line is an at­trac­tive one for un­li­censed busi­nesses.

Both Lin the driver and Liu the an­a­lyst be­lieve there are la­bor trou­bles brew­ing, as a sec­tor swelled by pro­mo­tions and mar­ket­ing ad­justs to the mar­ket. “It’s a de­mand cre­ated by sub­si­dies,” says Liu. “But since the end of last year, the mar­ket is con­tract­ing; it’s sta­bi­liz­ing it­self, so now there’s in­ter­nal com­pe­ti­tion for or­ders.” Driver Lin has seen it first hand: “Last year, every­body was switch­ing over to food de­liv­ery from other jobs. Our com­pany was do­ing very well, giv­ing all th­ese dis­counts,” he says, tak­ing a break out­side. “Take a look at the streets there—ev­ery­one’s a food de­liv­ery guy. It’s got­ten to the point now there are more de­liv­ery­men than or­ders be­ing placed.”

If what they say is true, merg­ers, re­fi­nanc­ing and takeovers are likely to oc­cur, along with pos­si­ble lay­offs. Yet the in­dus­try is sure to con­tinue its ex­pan­sion, while it is th­ese em­ploy­ees, con­stantly striv­ing to im­prove their speed, who may well be left be­hind. The names of driv­ers have been changed to pro­tect their iden­ti­ties

Mail bond­ing: Meituan's de­liv­ery “knights” line up for a morn­ing drill and mo­ti­va­tional speech

Down time: In the post-rush hour lull, Feng­niao de­liv­ery­men rest in Wangjing, Beijing, while check­ing their phones for new or­ders

A gath­er­ing spot of Baidu's food de­liv­ery army by the Sec­ond Ring Road in Beijing

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