Food delivery drivers raise concerns over safety nets

Uber Eats is an online food ordering and delivery platform. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

From leg amputations in Thailand to hijackings in Nigeria, millions of food delivery drivers around the world find themselves torn between the desperation to make a living and the fear that each ride may be their last.

The gig economy has surged during the Covid-19 pandemic and brought with it a wave of concerns from drivers and researchers who say that dangerous roads and inadequate safety equipment and training are putting lives on the line daily.

By 2020 there were at least 777 digital labour platforms - from food delivery to web design - around the world, up from about 140 a decade earlier, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

In the United States alone, the revenue of the country’s top four food-delivery apps more than doubled over a five-month period in 2020 - at the height of Covid lockdowns - to about $5.5 billion (Sh616 billion), according to financial analysis site MarketWatch.

Couriers from South Africa to Mexico say they increasingly have to compete for trips to make up for lost income, with the influx of exhausted drivers and what they warn is a lack of training and safety equipment leading to more accidents.

While researchers and activists say insurance coverage by gig platforms is becoming more common, many drivers report receiving insufficient payouts - or none at all - leaving them to sink into debt to pay off medical bills, bike repairs and loans.

“These platforms operate in a legal grey area that allows them to evade regulation and labour protection,” said Kelle Howson, a researcher at Fairwork, a research project on the global gig economy at Britain’s Oxford Internet Institute.

By classifying workers as “partners”, said Howson, platforms are able to bypass many social security measures like health insurance or sick leave that are outlined as a universal right by the ILO.

“The entire onus of everything to do with our lives, ourselves, our bikes, the fuel is on us ... it’s completely unfair,” said Rahul Singh, a former food courier in Mumbai who asked to use a pseudonym.

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