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The delivery drivers risking it all to keep China fed

China's food delivery industry offers a vision of the gig economy taken to a chaotic extreme.

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China is becoming a food-delivery nation.

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Across China, hundreds of millions of smartphone users order piping hot meals to their doorstep every day. It’s a high-tech system made possible by low-cost labor.

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Delivery drivers face frenetic workloads and frequent injuries. Sometimes the crashes are fatal.

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Many cities report accidents happening almost every day. But the real toll is likely higher. That’s because many injured drivers simply keep on working if they can.

This is the risk-filled world of China’s food-delivery drivers.

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Zhang Pei, 27, is one of more than 3 million delivery drivers in China.

He puts in about 14 hours a day on the road, making about $1 per order.

In just five years, China’s food-delivery industry has grown so vast, so efficient and so central to daily life that it’s jokingly dubbed one of the “great inventions” of modern Chinese civilization.

Delivery drivers like Zhang are glued to their phones. The orders pour in via apps. The pace is relentless. Too many late deliveries can cost a driver his or her job.

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The drivers talk about crushing workloads during meal hours, coping with bad weather, unruly traffic — and the unforgiving dispatch algorithms that never stop churning out orders.

The $36 billion market is three times the size of the U.S. food-delivery market. With the demand for speed, delivery drivers swerve and dodge through China’s teeming cities. Stories surface about pressures and pitfalls for the waimai xiaoge — food-delivery boys — who keep the system ticking. (There are some women, too.)

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Accidents and close calls are just part of the job. There are many scraped elbows, some mangled legs. And even delivery runs that end in death.

In China, the food-delivery industry offers a vision of the gig economy taken to a chaotic extreme, with a patchy social safety net and regulators lagging behind. Chinese authorities have been trying to tame streets overrun by the growing delivery industry.

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As soon as Zhang turns on the delivery app, the automated dispatch system starts flashing jobs. It chimes: “You have unconfirmed deliveries. Please respond as soon as possible.”

Zhang works 14 hours a day, six days a week for the delivery giant Meituan. “There is nothing quite as stressful,” he said.

When Zhang accepts an order, the app plots the shortest route to the drop-off. The destination could be down the block or up to five miles away.

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During peak hours, Zhang often juggles more than a half-dozen orders at once. It could be anything: Sichuan dishes and Shanxi noodles, lattes, bubble tea and KFC bucket meals.

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The dangers and pressures can pay off. A delivery driver willing to work extra hours can earn more than some college-educated computer programmers earn.

Zhang is calm off the road. But he turns into a different person when he works. He plunges down streets against traffic, blows through chaotic intersections, ducks into office buildings and sprints up stairs to drop off meals — sometimes with only seconds to spare. “You know your terrain, calculate with your brain and move precisely,” he said.

That’s because drivers get docked $10 for late deliveries. If a customer files a complaint on Meituan’s app, a driver could be fined their entire days’ earnings or booted off the platform altogether.

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As accidents involving delivery boys became widespread in recent years, the three large food-ordering platforms that dominate the Chinese market — Meituan, Baidu and Eleme — have tweaked their dispatch algorithms to be slightly less demanding, drivers say.

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On rainy days, for instance, they get an extra 15 minutes. Chinese police have proposed measures such as installing tracking chips to punish bad driving among reckless and stressed delivery drivers. A Meituan spokeswoman said the company requires road-safety training for all new drivers. Meituan also has regular refresher courses.

Zhang comes from the countryside outside Handan south of Beijing. He lives the typical migrant-worker lifestyle in Beijing. He shares a 50-square-foot room with another delivery driver who brought him into the business four years ago.

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Zhang calls home to his wife and two sons three times a week and checks up occasionally on his friend Chen, a co-worker who is homebound in Inner Mongolia and trying to hasten his knee recovery with a diet of porridge and dried dates so he could come back to work soon.

After he fell off his scooter in August, Zhang took the four-and-a-half hour bus ride back to his village, where his family lives in the two-bedroom apartment he bought a few years back for about $27,000 with his earnings.

His wife asked whether he might finally decide to find a different job, he said.

He gave the answer he gives every year: “Maybe next year.”