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The Big Read: Not just a gig — some food delivery riders see job as their best shot in life despite downsides

SINGAPORE — For over a decade, Ms Yati was a homemaker who relied on her husband, who was a taxi driver, as the sole breadwinner of their family.

The Big Read: Not just a gig — some food delivery riders see job as their best shot in life despite downsides

With its low barriers to entry, the food delivery industry has become the gig of choice for many looking for flexible working hours and quick cash.

  • With its low barriers to entry, the food delivery industry has become the gig of choice for those looking for flexible working hours and quick cash
  • As the number of food delivery riders continues to grow, their well-being was among the issues raised during the National Day Rally in August
  • However, the job comes with many downsides including the lack of basic benefits and having to brave the elements while on the road
  • Despite the downsides, some food delivery riders have decided to remain in the industry for the long haul for various reasons
  • These riders, who have been in the line for several years, have had their fair share of nasty and heartwarming encounters with customers. They have also witnessed how the industry has changed due to Covid-19   

 

SINGAPORE — For over a decade, Ms Yati was a homemaker who relied on her husband, who was a taxi driver, as the sole breadwinner of their family.

But in November 2018, his health started to decline due to a heart condition and he could work only for about two to three hours each day, before he would begin to feel breathless and return home. At that time, Ms Yati felt that she needed to step in to help pay for their living expenses, including the monthly rent for their one-room flat.

The 59-year-old, who wanted to be known only by a shortened version of her name, decided that she would take on food delivery on her personal mobility device (PMD).

“I’ve got no other choice. I cannot do a cleaning job because I cannot see dirty things, I will vomit,” said Ms Yati, who dropped out of school in Secondary Two. “And I have no experience in (the) office line. My education is not that high. So this is the only job I think suits me.”

For nearly the past three years and counting, she has been delivering food six days a week.

For Mr Zhang, another food delivery rider who declined to give his full name, the job allows him to “start making money immediately at the start of the day” and it is hard for him to find a job that pays the same. Each month, he aims to earn about S$3,000.

The 38-year-old, who has been working as a full-time food delivery rider since December 2018, had previously held a variety of jobs, including in telemarketing and sales as well as working as a private hire car driver.

He added: “I can also save money in this job. It’s the way you see how money is earned too. Making S$5 to S$7 at a time compared to S$3,000 at a time (at the end of the month) makes you think twice (about spending).”

Another food delivery rider, Mr Luqman, began delivering food for UberEats in 2016, after leaving his part-time job as an aircraft cabin cleaner.

In 2018, GrabFood took over UberEats as part of the Malaysian company's acquisition of Uber's South-east Asian operations.

“I got to know about food delivery from a friend. It’s more flexible so I would be able to take care of my wife who suffers from anxiety and depression. I can rush home any time she needs me,” said Mr Luqman, 33, who continues to work as a GrabFood delivery rider full-time today.

Ms Yati has been delivering food six days a week, for nearly the past three years and counting. Photo: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY

GIG OF CHOICE FOR MANY, A LONG-TERM JOB FOR SOME 

With its low barriers to entry, the food delivery industry has become the gig of choice for many looking for flexible working hours and quick cash. In the past year, the industry has also offered a temporary lifeline to people who suddenly find themselves without a job due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But food delivery riders do not enjoy the same basic benefits or job prospects as most employees. The job also comes with its fair share of negative encounters and challenges — namely dealing with unreasonable customers and vendors, grappling with bad weather, travelling on crowded and dangerous roads, and getting injured as a result.

While the main delivery platforms — GrabFood, Foodpanda and Deliveroo — offer insurance for their delivery riders, it is only recently that coverage for these workers has been enhanced.

Grab, for example, which expanded to Singapore in 2013 and launched GrabFood in 2018, began providing free insurance for all its delivery riders, starting with personal accident insurance introduced in 2019. Early this year, it rolled out insurance for prolonged medical leave. These initiatives were enhanced in July.

While Deliveroo launched in Singapore in 2015, it only began accident and injury insurance for riders in May 2018, providing such cover to its over 9,000 riders free of charge.

As for Foodpanda, which started its operations in Singapore in 2012, it partnered insurance tech company Igloo in July to offer riders and their families insurance coverage — including for accidental death and accidental medical expenses — from S$9 per month.

Apart from the lack of basic benefits, some food delivery riders have also seen their earnings affected during the ongoing pandemic despite the boom in demand.

During the circuit breaker last year, while food delivery platforms saw an increase in deliveries, some riders reported they started earning less from the platforms, with weekly incentives also falling. They attributed it partly to the influx of new riders who had lost their previous jobs.

The well-being of food delivery riders was among the issues raised during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally (NDR) speech on Aug 29.

PM Lee pointed out that these gig workers have no employment contracts and thus, they lack basic job protection that most employees have, such as workplace injury compensation, union representation and employers’ contribution to the workers’ Central Provident Fund (CPF).

He also noted that more people have been taking up this type of work, especially amid the pandemic.

Last year, there were a total of 11,300 car and light goods vehicle drivers, who included food delivery riders, according to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) Labour Force in Singapore 2020 report. This was 3,500 more from the figure in 2019, when such data was first reported.

Food delivery riders interviewed in August after PM Lee’s NDR speech had told TODAY that they hoped for more medical benefits and to be paid on their days off, but not all agreed on making CPF contributions.

Food delivery riders do not enjoy the same basic benefits or job prospects as most employees. The job also comes with its fair share of negative encounters and challenges — namely dealing with unreasonable customers and vendors, grappling with bad weather, travelling on crowded and dangerous roads, and getting injured as a result. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Economists said that it is possible to give these gig workers a better deal via legislation, but this may lead to consumers having to pay more. 

MOM has set up an advisory committee to study how to support self-employed persons who work for online platforms.

With changes afoot in the industry, TODAY looks at why some food delivery riders have decided to remain in it for the long haul, even relying on the job as their only source of income, despite the downsides.

THE DOWNSIDES

For the riders interviewed by TODAY, keeping safe while on the road and making deliveries is the biggest challenge they face daily.

“There’s always a safety concern. You never know if today’s the day you don’t get home,” said Mr Zhang, who does his deliveries on a motorcycle.

Another delivery rider who wanted to be known only as Mr Lee, 35, added: “You can be predictable on the road but sometimes other motorists are not.” He has been delivering food full time on his bicycle since January 2019.

Ms Yati, who rides an electric bicycle to make deliveries after the ban on PMDs in 2019, has been hit by a taxi while on the job but escaped with light injuries.

Mr Rafael Sriram, a 32-year-old food delivery rider, said: “As e-bike users, we always face drivers who have no patience and they don’t give way to us. We get horned (at) sometimes and get stared (at) if we try to cut lanes.” 

He was a part-time food delivery rider from 2015 to November 2019, working on all weekends, or about eight times a month, before he left his job in the food and beverage (F&B) industry and decided to pursue the gig full-time.

“Weather is also one of the toughest (challenges). Especially when it rains, it is more dangerous for us (on the road). Humid weather during the mid-year, like in March, April and May where it's super humid, sometimes we get heat rash and dehydration,” Mr Rafael said.

Mr Rafael Sriram, a 32-year-old food delivery rider, said that e-bike users like himself always face drivers who have no patience and don’t give way. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Long waiting times at F&B merchants are also a bane for many.

It is the “most frustrating thing”, said Mr Zhang. “Plus I don’t get paid for waiting in restaurants. That’s just wrong.”

Mr Mohamed Shamir Ghani, 31, a full-time food delivery rider since 2016, added: “Sometimes it feels like you can just go mad when waiting for so long for orders (to be ready).”

Then, there is having to deal with impatient and unreasonable customers and sometimes merchants too.

“Basically riders are more or less treated like punching bags. Yes we can retaliate but once we retaliate and people complain about our bad behaviors (to the delivery platform), the company takes serious actions on us,” said Mr Rafael. “Our account can get suspended hence we won't be able to work. Length of suspension depends on a case-by-case basis. So basically delivery riders are more or less a patty in a burger — compressed up and down.”

RETIREMENT ADEQUACY

In his NDR speech, PM Lee noted that delivery workers lack basic job protection that most employees have, such as workplace injury compensation, union representation and employers’ contributions to the workers’ CPF.

CPF is a mandatory social security savings scheme for Singapore residents, funded by contributions from employers and employees.

However, the food delivery riders TODAY spoke to were not overly perturbed by these issues, and were happy to stay in the line in spite of them.

While workplace injuries are a concern, the delivery riders agreed that the insurance available for work-related injuries offered by the various platforms is sufficient when paired with their personal insurance policies, which most of them have. They also do not mind the lack of other medical benefits.

They also do not mind the lack of CPF contributions and noted that they could make the contributions on their own if they wanted.

“I actually think (working as a food delivery rider is) stable in terms of savings and finances. As for CPF, I don't mind putting in more on my own,” said Mr Mohamed.

Mr Zhang was among those who felt that it was not a big concern. “I’m already getting my house and have enough savings in my CPF and cash to fully pay for it,” he said.

He felt that it would “make more sense” to put his money elsewhere in order to save up for retirement.

Mr Rafael also feels that CPF is “not important” given his circumstances.

“The CPF money is basically used to help you buy public housing, so it’s important for those categories of people. I’m living in a condominium right now and I’m not planning to downgrade to a HDB flat,” said Mr Rafael, who is living with his parents.

“Anyway I can still top up myself at any time if it’s needed, I do it about once every two to three months for my MediSave,” he added, referring to the national medical-savings scheme.

In his NDR speech, PM Lee noted that delivery workers lack basic job protection that most employees have, such as workplace injury compensation, union representation and employers’ contributions to the workers’ CPF. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

WHAT THE PLATFORMS ARE DOING

TODAY reached out to the three main food delivery platforms to find out if they actively seek to retain riders and what benefits or policies are in place for riders who remain in this line for the longer term.

A Grab spokesperson said that Grab is an “open and flexible” platform and its “partners” — a term the firm uses for its food delivery riders — have the flexibility to move between platforms or stop work anytime, take on other work, and determine their own work patterns and hours.

“Our platform sees both short- and long-term partners. Some of these long-term partners have chosen to be with us for years as they appreciate the flexibility the platform offers. We are also supportive of our partners who would like to pursue other career paths outside of Grab,” the spokesperson said.

Through its GrabAcademy initiative, all partners can browse its app and take up online courses including on digital and financial literacy.

GrabAcademy also provides “second-skilling opportunities” for its partners to acquire practical skills such as entrepreneurship and professional culinary skills. They can also acquire personal trainer certifications, for example, if they are seeking other freelance opportunities.

A Foodpanda spokesperson said that the bulk of its riders are transient and are on the platform for a brief period of time as a supplemental gig.

“Flexibility, autonomy and fair compensation are the fundamental reasons why riders choose to work with foodpanda. Riders choose when and how much to work, and earn as much as they want to.”

The spokesperson added that Foodpanda has partnered companies to offer affordable insurance packages for its riders and their families. It has also worked with various institutions to provide courses for riders, including on financial literacy and money management. Riders can also pay discounted rates for other courses on topics such as digital skills, and personal branding.

Over at Deliveroo, a spokesperson said that according to its latest rider survey conducted in September, 90 per cent of its over 9,000 riders were satisfied or very satisfied working with them.

“In the same rider survey, flexibility consistently comes out at the top of the list regarding what riders like most about working for the platform in terms of both importance and satisfaction. In fact, an overwhelming 96 per cent of respondents shared that they prefer and enjoy the flexibility of self-determined work in the platform economy,” the spokesperson said.

Sixty-two per cent of the riders also shared that they had additional sources of income.

Like Grab and Foodpanda, Deliveroo provides avenues for learning and upskilling. It also has a community fund so riders can get discounts on petrol and food and drinks, among other things.

A Deliveroo spokesperson said that according to its latest rider survey conducted in September, 90 per cent of its over 9,000 riders were satisfied or very satisfied working with them. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

NASTY ENCOUNTERS, HEARTWARMING MOMENTS

While impatient or rude customers are just part and parcel of any job in the service industry, some of the delivery riders interviewed have had moments where they felt they were treated less-than.

Mr Rafael recalled an incident where there was a delay in the preparation of an order for one customer. At the same time, he had to pick up and deliver other orders.

“She started being very rude to me, telling me I had no decency in messaging her and informing her that I have other orders and will take some time. I apologised and asked her to understand the situation and that it was the first time I was encountering this.

“I knew she was upset and since she was being very demanding, I took the initiative to send her order first once the food was ready,” he said.

When Mr Rafael reached her home, where he had expected to receive cash on delivery of the food, the customer’s husband greeted him at the door. The woman shouted from a room that she would not pay a single cent, had already called Grab to complain and did not wish to talk to him.

In the end, Mr Rafael passed the food to the husband and left without getting paid. After discussing the matter with Grab, the company paid him the delivery fee. 

“I understand that when we are hungry, we are always a bit upset, sometimes moody. But there is always a limit to everything. Even riders are humans, not robots. We need to ride there and we also need to think of our safety,” said Mr Rafael, reiterating that in this instance, it was no fault of his that the food preparation took longer than expected. “But in this case, I knew she was upset so I rushed over, and was still treated this way.”

Ms Yati also recounted how she got a warning letter from a food delivery platform after a customer complained that she had been rude.

“All I did was tell her nicely that next time, she should be more clear with how she inputs her location,” she said.

But there have also been unforgettable, happier moments for both Mr Rafael and Ms Yati.

During the circuit breaker, Mr Rafael was on one occasion delivering a cake to a woman with an order note stating “happy married life”.

Curious, Mr Rafael sent a message to the customer asking if he needed him to pass a message to the woman on his behalf.

“He was telling me that it was their first year wedding anniversary but they were living apart because they hadn’t gotten their Build-to-Order flat yet. He told me how he wished he could say it in front of her and told me to wish her on his behalf,” he said.

“I asked him if he could pass me his number so I could FaceTime him when I was at her door, so he could wish her as I passed her the cake. It was a very touching moment. I could feel that it was very hard for them so I felt I should do something to go the extra mile for them.”

For Ms Yati, she recalled a time before Covid-19 struck when she made a delivery to a guest at Genting Hotel Jurong in the pouring rain.

“She was waiting for me in the lobby and passed me a tip when I gave the order to her. I only looked down to check the tip as I walked away. I got a shock. It was a S$50 note. I ran back to her because I thought she gave me a wrong note,” said Ms Yati.

“She said ‘No, no, this is really for you’. She noticed my efforts to deliver food in the heavy rain.”

HOW COVID-19 HAS CHANGED THE INDUSTRY

Those who have been delivery riders for a few years now noted that the industry — like many other aspects of life — has changed due to Covid-19.

“There are too many (new riders) now. Last time, I could bring home S$1,000 a week. Now it’s maybe only around S$400 for working the same hours,” Ms Yati said.

She works six days a week from 8am to noon, when she will take a break before continuing from 5.30pm to 9.30pm.

“Foodpanda is also paying us less. Last time I would get S$7 per order, now it’s maybe S$3 or S$4,” she said.

Those who have been delivery riders for a few years now noted that the industry — like many other aspects of life — has changed due to Covid-19. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Mr Lee, the 35-year-old rider who primarily works on the Foodpanda platform, noticed that the fee structure has changed from fixed fees to being based on distance instead. 

“So now when you go nearer, fees are even less than what was the fixed amount before. And it’s only increased for those who go further. Also… they don’t take into account that sometimes we need to go one big round to get somewhere.

“With more riders now, I also feel like the platform has the bargaining chip to push down fees even more. It’s like, if you don’t want to do it, we have other riders who are willing,” he said.

On its website, Foodpanda said that its fee structure was changed from June 23 last year. It added that the changes were in response to feedback from riders to be “compensated fairly for longer travel, to have the ability to choose which order to accept and to have complete transparency on how much you can make per order”.

On distance-based fees, it said: “We understand that some orders are farther than others, and we want to fairly incentivise our riders for their exceptional effort.”

Mr Lee, who lives in the West and used to make deliveries around the region, said he has had to go elsewhere because his area has become “overpopulated” with other riders, making it hard to get jobs.

He now leaves his home every morning five days a week and takes the train to Orchard where his bicycle is parked to deliver orders in the central areas.

“I’m not earning less per se, I’m just working harder,” said Mr Lee, who declined to say how much he earns typically from delivering food.

The former merchandising executive said that what keeps him going is his love for cycling and the fact that he can earn a decent amount of money as long as he puts in the hard work.

For Ms Yati, her job as a food delivery rider gives her a sense of independence.

“My children are married with their own children. They have their own responsibility and they need to support their own family so I don't want to bother my children,” said the mother of four. “As long as I'm still strong, I can cycle, I can move, I will proceed.” 

Mr Rafael, who earns up to S$5,000 a month working everyday between 6am to 3pm, sees himself staying in this line for at least the next two years. After that, he hopes to open his own cafe.

“Food delivery is good money. Secondly, it’s a foolproof job where you don’t have to think too much. The only hurdles are that you have to wait a lot and when it rains, there are (safety) risks. Food delivery platforms will never die. Everyone needs to eat,” he said. 

Related topics

delivery riders food delivery commission cpf GrabFood Foodpanda Deliveroo

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