Motorcycles with food delivery bags can been seen in increasing numbers on the nation’s streets day and night. Especially at lunch or dinner time, food couriers waiting for the traffic lights to change at most intersections provide a display of the various food delivery options available in Taipei.
Clearly, this is an emerging industry that no one can ignore.
Food delivery is convenient. It allows people to order meals from a wide array of restaurants on their mobile phones, avoiding the inconvenience of eating out or cooking.
In addition, these digital platforms allow restaurants to attract new customers, without the need to train and maintain their own delivery staff. For food couriers, barriers to entry in this industry are low, and the “gig” economy offers flexible work schedules and the opportunity to earn money on the side.
At first glance, food delivery platforms seem to have created a win-win-win situation for consumers, restaurants and delivery people, and the industry has expanded quickly.
However, there have been increasing complaints from couriers and customers. For instance, some food couriers have taken to social media to vent their anger at heavy workloads, poor pay structures, insufficient occupational safety and rude customers.
There have been traffic accidents as delivery riders rush to finish a task and move on to collect the next order. There have been incidents, including one last week, in which food couriers were injured or killed in accidents, but they had no accident insurance or other benefits granted to full-time employees. In this respect, the industry does not seem as bright and promising as it might claim.
There are increasing calls to make sure that people working in this industry have the rights and protections they need.
One of the major disputes between food couriers and delivery service operators is employment status: Couriers are not regular employees, but independent contractors, which affects their labor and health insurance, as well as other benefits. Service operators like to highlight the beauty of the burgeoning gig economy, in which people can work simultaneously for different employers and with greater flexibility. However, labor rights advocates have called the situation exploitative.
Moreover, because the employment relationship is built on a contract basis, service platforms cannot be held responsible for the behavior of couriers if consumers’ rights are not respected. That has led platform operators, restaurants and couriers to pass the buck whenever disputes occur.
To date, food couriers in Taiwan have not formed any unions. It remains to be seen if they would form labor unions to negotiate contract terms and seek better working conditions, taking the example of the Japanese staff of Uber Eats, who formed a labor union on Oct. 3.
The government cannot turn a blind eye to the hidden risks the development of a gig economy might generate. The government should not take a laissez-faire attitude and allow companies to externalize their true social and labor costs under the guise of business innovation and technology upgrades.
Taiwan needs a legal framework to protect those working for these platforms from being treated poorly, and the government should help ensure that companies maintain corporate social responsibility, provide good management and improved employment relations.
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