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The Big Read in short: Are working conditions making it unsafe for food delivery riders on roads?

SINGAPORE — Mr Mohammed Kamarruhadi, 47, recalled the day his family rushed to the hospital in May last year, after his 18-year-old son suffered serious injuries from a road accident while delivering a food order. 
The safety of food delivery riders has come under the spotlight recently, after it was revealed in Parliament earlier this month that five food delivery riders died on the job in the past 18 months.
The safety of food delivery riders has come under the spotlight recently, after it was revealed in Parliament earlier this month that five food delivery riders died on the job in the past 18 months.

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how the working conditions for food delivery riders contribute to risks of road accidents. This is a shortened version of the full feature,​ which can be found here.

  • The safety of food delivery riders has come under the spotlight recently, after it was revealed in Parliament earlier this month that five food delivery riders died on the job in the past 18 months
  • Speaking in Parliament on July 5, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon said that the authorities are working with platform firms to enhance the safety of delivery riders
  • Interviews with these gig workers found that they face a high risk of accidents while on the roads. Among the 12 riders whom TODAY spoke to, all except one said that they have either been involved in accidents or experienced close shaves on their deliveries
  • There are several risk factors including long hours and fatigue, as well as the rush to fulfil orders to meet targets or gain incentives
  • Experts suggested better cycling infrastructure which can help keep delivery riders off the roads, as well as enhancements to the algorithm used by these platform companies to promote safety among the riders

SINGAPORE — Mr Mohammed Kamarruhadi, 47, recalled the day his family rushed to the hospital in May last year, after his 18-year-old son suffered serious injuries from a road accident while delivering a food order. 

As his son laid on the hospital bed, the family called up the food delivery company to inform them about the accident and find out what they were going to do about it. 

To his shock and anger, the operator on the other end of the line was merely interested in asking for the order number of the delivery as part of its standard operating procedure. 

“This person is fighting for his life, his phone is all damaged, then you are asking these kinds of questions... My boy is now mentally different, and his life is not the same because of that S$5 order,” Mr Kamarruhadi, who also works as a food delivery rider, told TODAY earlier this week.  

The accident resulted in his son, Mohammed Ali, having to undergo surgery to remove part of his skull to release pressure and blood clots in the brain due to the severe impact to the head. 

Over a year on, Ali, who had just graduated from the Institute of Technical Education when the accident occurred, is slowly on the mend and still goes for physiotherapy sessions. 

The safety of food delivery riders has come under the spotlight recently, after it was revealed in Parliament earlier this month that five food delivery riders died on the job in the past 18 months.

TODAY's interviews with these gig workers found that they face a high risk of accidents while on the roads. Among the 12 riders whom TODAY spoke to, all except one said that they have either been involved in accidents or experienced close shaves on their deliveries. 

TODAY's interviews with food delivery riders found that they face a high risk of accidents while on the roads
I can go near to the kerb but some of the cars, they don’t care and just zoom past you and (they get) very near.
Food delivery rider Alvin Tan, 35

Mr Muhammad Izzudin, 24, a delivery rider for GrabFood, noted how traffic is particularly heavy during peak hours in busy areas such as Orchard and Tiong Bahru. “Just last month, when I was working at night, (a driver) didn’t look left and right at first, and so when I was going down the slope, the driver didn’t see me, and I almost collided with the car,” he said.

Another food delivery rider Alvin Tan, 35, said that close calls happen as much as thrice a week for him. “I can go near to the kerb but some of the cars, they don’t care and just zoom past you and (they get) very near... By right, you need to keep a 1.5m distance away from the bike, and some of the roads are narrow, but some of these drivers don’t care.” 

Speaking in Parliament on July 5, Senior Minister of State for Manpower Koh Poh Koon said that the authorities are working with platform firms to enhance the safety of delivery riders. 

The major food delivery platform firms in Singapore are Deliveroo, foodpanda and Grabfood. 

Dr Koh, who also provided the statistics on fatal accidents, was responding to a question by Jurong GRC Member of Parliament (MP) Tan Wu Meng on how many food delivery platform workers had died from accidents since January last year.

Dr Koh said that the Advisory Committee on Platform Workers — set up by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) last year — is also looking into strengthening financial protection in cases of work injury for delivery persons, private-hire car drivers and taxi drivers. This would fall under the Work Injury Compensation Act and would require companies to report work injuries to ensure that platform workers are compensated. 

SOME RECENT ACCIDENTS INVOLVING FOOD DELIVERY RIDERS

June 2022: A GrabFood delivery rider died after a traffic accident at Waterway Point shopping mall in Punggol. The 54-year-old was riding a power assisted bicycle when the accident happened. He was conscious when he was taken to the Changi General Hospital but later succumbed to his injuries. 

May 2022: A 54-year-old delivery rider died after a road accident with a motorcycle at Serangoon Road towards Upper Serangoon Road after Whampoa East. The rider, who was riding a personal mobility device, was unconscious when he was taken to the hospital, where he later died. 

April 2022: A 24-year-old food delivery rider died from an accident at Gambas Avenue. The father-to-be was riding a motorcycle when he met with the accident and was pronounced dead at the scene by a Singapore Civil Defence Force paramedic. A 36-year-old male van driver was arrested for careless driving causing death. 

March 2021: A 42-year-old food delivery rider was hit by a Mini Cooper at the intersection of Hougang Avenue 1 and Tampines Road. The rider died of his injuries hours after he was taken to Tan Tock Seng Hospital, leaving behind his wife and young daughter.

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FACTORS THAT ENDANGER SAFETY 

On the safety risk factors, food delivery riders interviewed cited harsh weather conditions, fatigue from working long hours, the rush to fulfil orders, and for some, the size and speed of their bicycles or electric bicycles compared with other vehicles on the roads. 

They told TODAY that they spend significant hours on the road, come rain or shine, and they often try to complete as many orders in a day as possible, so as to get the incentives offered by their firms. Apart from incentives, some food delivery firms also require riders to hit basic daily targets. 

One rider, who wanted to be known only as Mr Zhang, said he once suffered a serious accident while rushing to meet orders. 

The 39-year-old, who delivers food using a motorcycle, was trying to hit his daily target in December 2019 when he ran into a red light. He suddenly switched lanes and jammed his brakes. 

While he stopped in time, he was hit from behind by a lorry and ended up being flung from his motorbike. He broke several bones in one of his hands and was on medical leave for three months. 

“I could have controlled the situation if I was going slower... these were things that I could have done if I wasn’t rushing,” Mr Zhang said. 

He managed to get a daily remuneration of about US$70 (S$98) a day from his food delivery firm while he was on MC, and his own personal insurance covered his hospital expenses.

However, what happened immediately after his accident left him riled. “While I was injured, the order was still on my phone and I couldn’t cancel,” said Mr Zhang, who declined to reveal the food delivery firm which he was working with at that time. 

“I was still conscious, so I messaged the dispatch for them to cancel, I told them I got into an accident and was injured, what the dispatch actually asked me to do was to ‘please take a picture (of your injury)’… I couldn’t take it and just (swore at him)",” he said.

Mr Zhang said that while he was not chasing incentives on the day he met with the accident, he observed that many riders who do so can risk compromising their safety in their rush to meet the orders. 

Food delivery riders cited safety risk factors such as wet weather, fatigue from working long hours, the rush to fulfil orders, and for some, the size and speed of their bicycles or electric bicycles compared with other vehicles on the roads.

For food delivery riders who use bicycles or electric bicycles, they said that they feel even less safe when on the roads.  

Under the Road Traffic Act, a person who rides a bicycle or electric bicycle has to do so "as near as practicable to the far left edge of the road". 

However, some food delivery riders felt that such a rule causes them to be less visible to other motorists, or to ride in narrow spaces. 

Some of the cars, they use sunshades or have tinted windows, so this prevents them from seeing us at all. Most of the time, they don’t check their blind spots.
Food delivery rider Raymond Tan, 38, who is also a pro-tem member of the National Delivery Champions Association

Mr Raymond Tan, 38, a food delivery rider and pro-tem member of the National Delivery Champions Association (NDCA), said that he nearly met with an accident twice last year.  

NDCA was set up in 2020 by the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) to represent delivery riders.

Mr Tan said: “Some of the cars, they use sunshades or have tinted windows, so this prevents them from seeing us at all. Most of the time, they don’t check their blindspots." 

Likewise, Mr Dylan Tan, 40, who delivers food on an electric bicycle, felt that riders on such PMDs are at greater risk because they could be harder to spot by motorists when making a turn and also, it is easier to lose balance on an electric bicycle compared to a motorcycle which has a relatively more sturdy built.  

He added that some drivers may also fail to anticipate the movements of electric bicycles given that they are more like bicycles rather than motorcycles.

“For motorbikes, cars would follow behind them but when the (an electric bicycle) is in front, some motorists would expect the (electric bicycle) to move to the side of the road. This is why so many accidents happen at turning points as well,” he said.  

Moreover, drainage and uneven tarmac on the roadside can also cause problems for riders on electric bicycles, he said.

While they would feel safer if they were on motorcycles, many of the riders who use electric bicycles told TODAY that fuel cost and Certificate of Entitlement (COE) premiums put them off the thought of switching to motorcycles.  

Mr Alvin Tan, 35, a delivery rider with GrabFood and Deliveroo, said that though he experiences near-misses regularly, he is sticking with his electric bicycle as it is less tiring compared to bicycles. He is also not keen to go through the time-consuming process of getting a motorcycle licence.

Away from their mode of transportation, food delivery riders also spoke about long working hours and harsh weather conditions, which can impede their judgements on the road. 

One of them, 34-year-old Rafael Sriram, said: “While it depends on the individual, some riders start very early in the morning, and it can be the fatigue because we are tired.” 

Mr Raymond Tan said he typically works 16 hours a day, six days a week. The hours and hot weather can sometimes make him feel sleepy. “Everyday on the road and under the hot sun and rain, even a robot can die,” he said. 

Mr Raymond Tan, a delivery rider and pro-tem member of the National Delivery Champions Association (NDCA), said that he nearly met with an accident twice last year.

WHAT MOTORISTS SAY ABOUT DELIVERY RIDERS 

Motorists interviewed felt that food delivery riders also need to exercise care when on the roads. 

Do you think a big container ship can see a sailing boat? If anything happens, the small sailing boat will sink, if it is hit by the big container boat.
Motorist Alan Chee, 59, on how food delivery riders also need to exercise care

Mr Alan Chee, 59, said: “For example, take a big container ship, do you think a big container ship can see a sailing boat? If anything happens, the small sailing boat will sink, if it is hit by the big container boat.”

Others including Mr Henry Ang said they have seen, at times, reckless behaviour on the roads by food delivery riders on electric bicycles, which also endangers the lives of others.

Said Mr Ang, 56: “I know that they want business and are rushing, so sometimes I see them dash (across a junction) even when the traffic light is red... Sometimes, on the slip road, they would just dash across without looking at traffic, which would cause me to jam brake.”

WHAT FOOD DELIVERY FIRMS SAY 

In response to TODAY's queries, the three major food delivery firms all said that the safety of riders is a priority and they do not penalise riders if they take longer than the estimated timeframe in delivering the food to customers. 

A foodpanda spokesperson said that if riders are caught flouting road regulations, they may be temporarily banned from taking orders while the company conducts an investigation. In more extreme cases, it would put in place "more severe measures", the spokesperson added. 

In terms of working hours, Deliveroo and foodpanda do not have a cap on how long riders can work each day, while  GrabFood did not address this point in its reply.

Nevertheless, GrabFood said it notifies customers that their order might take a longer time to arrive when it is raining. 

A Deliveroo spokesperson said that its proprietary algorithm is designed to take into account factors such as riders’ profiles, distance, weather and duration of orders to ensure orders reach customers in the shortest possible time.

Said the spokesperson: "Our fully flexible fee per delivery payment model means that our self-employed riders can choose when they ride and decide how often they ride with us, even having the option to cancel right up to the last minute if they wish." 

A Grab spokesperson said that it is aware that delivery riders "may sometimes face challenges completing a delivery and they can contact Grab for assistance in such situations".

The three food delivery firms have also introduced training programmes and initiatives to promote road safety. 

For example, Deliveroo Singapore held a "Rider Safety Month" in October last year, where riders were offered basic emergency preparedness and defensive riding courses. 

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE 

Responding to TODAY's queries, NDCA advisor Yeo Wan Ling noted that currently, these workers are unable to claim for work injuries under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) even though they are susceptible to accidents on the road. 

“Medical coverage provided by platform operates is currently inadequate and uneven, leaving little to no income support for riders if they are on medical leave," said Ms Yeo, who is also an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC. 

Apart from safety concerns, the overall welfare of food delivery riders has also been a source of concern for the Government, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touching on the issue during his National Day Rally speech in August last year. 

Speaking to TODAY, Associate Professor Walter Theseira from the Singapore University of Social Sciences said that national standards on insurance and sick leave should be made necessary for such workers, instead of platforms offering voluntary options. 

However, the flexible nature of the food delivery riders’ work might make such policies hard to mandate, said Dr Woo Jun Jie, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, National University of Singapore. 

“For instance, riders do not work fixed hours nor are they tied to any specific organisations," said Dr Woo.

Some experts have suggested that these food delivery platforms leverage technology — such as enhancing the algorithms they use — to enhance riders’ safety. 

In a joint essay, Singapore Management University Professor of Information Systems Wang Hai and University of Hong Kong research fellow Sun Hao wrote about how to improve the algorithms used by platforms. Some of the recommendations could make deliveries less stressful for riders, which could in turn improve their safety. 

An example is for the algorithm estimating the delivery rider's time of arrival to include the rider's mode of transportation as well as information on the delivery location, such as whether the rider needs to use stairs to reach the unit. 

This would provide riders with a more reasonable timeframe for deliveries. Other suggestions include placing compliance with safety laws as a top factor when evaluating food delivery riders and giving them more orders. 

Some experts have suggested that these food delivery platforms leverage technology — such as enhancing the algorithms they use — to enhance riders’ safety.

Regarding the vulnerability of electric bicycles on the roads, experts said that it should be left up to the riders to choose their mode of transportation. 

Instead of raising the barrier to entry by getting riders to switch from electric bicycles to motorcycles, Dr Woo suggested that riders undergo a mandatory road safety course or briefing. 

Assoc Prof Theseira pointed out that making it mandatory for food delivery riders to use motorcycles would “effectively shut out” more than half of the worker pool. 

Instead, he said that one way to address the problem would be to ensure that there are viable off-road paths and better cycling infrastructure. This would encourage more food delivery riders to use bicycles and stay off the roads. 

Riders who spoke to TODAY, such as NDCA pro-tem member Raymond Tan and Mr Alvin Tan, also suggested having more cycling paths.

Meanwhile, Ms Yeo, the MP and NDCA adviser, said that the association is calling for strong legislative backing to better represent these workers, who “we feel are subjected to a high degree of control by platforms", to increase protection and improve their livelihoods. 

Indeed, for food delivery riders and their families, the balance of power seems to rests with the food delivery companies.   

Even though it has been more than a year since his son's accident, Mr Kamarruhadi has yet to receive any insurance payouts or compensation. 

The family got through the ordeal largely thanks to the public's generosity: After a Facebook post about the accident went viral, the family received almost S$70,000 in donations from the public, which helped to pay for the S$100,000 in medical expenses. This was not inclusive of the cranioplasty procedure to correct a defect in a bone of his skull, which cost around S$25,000. 

Mr Kamarruhadi said that when he contacted the food delivery platform, they told him that "they will try their best and push our case" with the third-party insurer. But to date, he has not heard back from the insurer.

Meanwhile, his son is trying to gradually get back onto his feet but the future remains unclear.  

“He hasn’t been able to go back to work since, but I tell him to go back to school. So, we are waiting to see if he can return to school since we don’t know whether he has to enlist for NS (National Service),” said Mr Kamarruhadi.  

 

Related topics

food delivery rider Foodpanda Deliveroo LTA GrabFood food delivery accident

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