This is the story of Xiao Wu, a pseudonymous food courier, as told to Protocol's Shen Lu.
Last spring, I moved away from my hometown, Foshan, a city in central Guangdong province, and headed to Xiamen, a port city on China's southeast coast, to become a full-time rider.
People think of food delivery as an inhumane, exploitative job. I disagree. I am like a bee, riding across the city performing my task, all day, every day. My honey harvesting begins the minute I open my eyes. Sometimes I am so busy I skip breakfast and even lunch. It's a tough job, but for experienced riders, it's actually not that hard. And it pays well. I can easily earn 400 yuan ($63) on any given day. [Editor's note: In the first quarter of 2021, China's median monthly disposable income was $418 per person.]
Before moving to Xiamen, I worked at my family's hardware shop. My father didn't pay me well, and I was shop-bound all day. I'm a few months shy of 24 years old, and I only have a middle school diploma, which doesn't leave me many choices. Delivering food on my electric bike is a much easier job compared to manual factory work. And it comes with perks: I get to travel around the beautiful city while I work. I moved to Xiamen because I love the sea. Sometimes, on a delivery trip, I ride along the island's seaside road as the sun sets. It's just breathtaking.
My first delivery job was with Meituan. I was a so-called "special delivery rider" (专送骑手), which is different from my current status as a "crowdsourced rider" (more on that later). Special delivery riders work solely for a Meituan subcontractor, which has quotas to fill. I signed a dispatch contract with the subcontractor, delivering meals within 4 kilometers of my dispatch center. I got paid monthly by the number of orders I delivered.
When I started delivering Meituan's orders, I made 5.25 yuan (82 cents) per order. They'd raise your delivery fee as you got faster and more efficient. I was making 5.8 yuan (91 cents) per order when I left. Additionally, my employer gave us subsidies to cover cell phone bills and bike maintenance fees. And if you maintain good ratings, you get some extra money.
Back then, I had to clock over 10 hours every day to make 8,000 yuan ($1,252) per month. During peak hours, Meituan's system allowed me to take up to eight orders at a time. I just needed to deliver them all within 30 minutes. On a busy day, I'd deliver up to 80 orders a day.
I wouldn't get my pay docked for late deliveries, but occasionally I got yelled at by impatient customers. You just had to suck it up. After the unpleasantries, I'd smoke a cigarette downstairs before dashing out to the next destination. What else could I do? If I argued, I'd risk being reported on. Then Meituan would fine me 500 yuan ($78). If the customer gave me a bad rating instead, the fine would be only 50 yuan ($8).
Sometimes when I felt exhausted, I took little breaks. I learned that as long as I was located outside my delivery radius, the system wouldn't find me, and so it would stop assigning orders to me. I'd sneak out of my delivery zone, to get a bubble tea and chill a little. After I got paid every month, I took a few days off to travel. I've been to Shanghai, Inner Mongolia and Guangxi. I'd love to visit Tibet, but I'm keeping that trip to share with my future girlfriend.
The riders working for the same dispatch center had our own WeChat group. We'd report to the group whenever anyone was stuck in traffic or when they saw traffic police fining bike riders without helmets. I haven't heard of "Mengzhu." [Editor's note: "Mengzhu" is a well-known food delivery worker activist. He was detained by Beijing police in February.] But I've heard of riders elsewhere who had collectively protested docked paychecks by not logging onto the delivery apps. That hasn't happened in our group. In the protestors' minds, they probably thought they were mistreated. But I was content as long as I was making money.
Every month, 200 yuan ($31) was deducted from my paycheck to pay for insurance, which would only cover accidents when I was riding my ebike. There were no benefits whatsoever. But what did I care? I was young.
Earlier this year, I left Meituan to become a crowdsourced rider (众包骑手) for Ele.me. I left without a two-month notice, so I didn't get my last month's paycheck. But that was fine. I was tired of Meituan's various requirements; I wanted more flexibility and autonomy.
Being a crowdsourced rider means I am my own boss. I register for work through an app, and I can control my own schedule. I'm actually working less and earning more these days because I get paid by the kilometer. The farther out I go, the more I earn.
My day goes like this: The minute I wake up, I log onto the Ele.me app. Orders will flood in immediately. I hit the road around 10 a.m. Sometimes I gobble down breakfast — usually two pork buns — while riding. I'll be on the road nonstop until 4 p.m., when I log off. Then I'll eat my lunch/dinner.
I like bad weather. People may think it's miserable delivering food in the pouring rain. But riders actually wish it rained even harder because the money gets a lot better. On a rainy day, the platform will raise our delivery fee to double digits, and I can earn 800 yuan ($125) easily that day. I don't feel pathetic at all; it's just my job.
With my Meituan training, I can now take 11 orders at a time and get them delivered within an hour. When you are a crowdsourced rider, you get fined if you are late. I have to pay for half the price of the meal every time there's a 10-minute delay. It's not a big deal. I can easily make that up by delivering a few more orders.
I know the platforms are being criticized for being unreasonable and exploitative, but they do offer flexible jobs to people like me. Instead of sitting for 12 hours at a factory assembly line, you log on and off whenever you feel like it. The minute I book 300 yuan ($47) in income, I usually call it a day. Once I log out of the app, the system cannot track me anymore. After work, if I don't party with friends, I'll play video games or watch thriller dramas in my apartment.
I like my current job. Anyone can be a crowdsourced rider. These days, when I pick up orders at restaurants, I often bump into college students who are doing this to make extra money. But I would not recommend my friends do this. I have not had any accidents myself, but if my friends got into a car accident one day and they lost an arm or leg somehow, I'd feel bad.
I won't do this forever; I am saving for my future. Every day, I send my mother 250 yuan ($39); she's saving it for me. I keep the remaining 50 yuan ($8) for food. My goal is to save enough for a down payment on a Honda Accord; I'm not far from it. Once I hit my savings goal, I'll quit delivering and return home. As much as I love Xiamen, I know I won't be able to settle down in this city as just a rider.