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As Dubai’s food delivery booms, dangers and casualties mount

Running late, the delivery driver threaded his motorcycle around lurching cars, speeding against time and traffic to satisfy a customer’s burger craving – the day’s last delivery in Dubai.

Moments later, a car sideswiped him.

The collision catapulted Mohammed Ifran off his bike and smashed him into the street, instantly killing the 21-year-old as he was delivering a meal worth some $8. After giving up farming in Pakistan, he had been working in Dubai as a contractor for Talabat, an online food delivery app popular in the United Arab Emirates.

“His family’s only source of happiness, gone,” said a fellow courier in the working-class district of Deira, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals.

Ifran’s June death represents just one in a growing number of casualties among food delivery riders in Dubai, workers and advocates say, as the pandemic pushed millions of people indoors and accelerated a surge in app-based orders.

The boom has transformed Dubai’s streets and stores and drawn thousands of desperate riders, predominantly Pakistanis, into the high-risk, lightly regulated and sometimes-fatal work. With most paid between $2 to $3 per delivery rather than a fixed salary, riders race in the scorching heat to keep pace with a relentless rush of orders.

The conditions of couriers worldwide, long perilous, worsened during the pandemic as riders became essential to feeding cities and faced new risks of coronavirus exposure. But in Dubai, the United Arab Emirate’s glimmering sheikhdom that runs on low-paid migrant labor from Africa and Asia, the job can be particularly precarious.

At the mercy of visa sponsors, workers in Dubai have few protections. To reduce cost, companies like London-based Deliveroo outsource bikes, logistics and responsibility to contracting agencies – a labor pipeline that prevails across Gulf Arab states and can lead to mistreatment.

“For food delivery riders in the UAE, the issue of exploitation is usually on the part of the sponsor. That’s where people feel they’re unable to change jobs or even to complain about working conditions,” said Karen Young, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

On Dubai’s streets, more than a dozen delivery riders interviewed said they knew of two or three co-workers killed every month. Memories of colleagues sprawled on the street in shredded uniforms and bloodied helmets remain vivid as they mount their bikes each morning, many said.

Dubai police have not yet released a road crash count for 2020. Past tallies did not offer breakdowns for motorcycle deaths. Authorities declined to offer recent figures or comment on crash cases like Ifran’s.

Without an official number, advocates have scoured local media to gauge the work’s hidden toll. One road safety activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, collected press reports of at least 70 delivery riders hospitalized last year in Dubai, including 24 who died.

The figure, although likely an undercount, “is intense” for Dubai during a year that kept most residents off the roads, he said. The entire country recorded 448 crash deaths in 2019.

State-linked Emirati newspaper The National reported that 12 delivery drivers were killed during the city’s lockdown in April alone, quoting a police official as saying, “When money comes into the equation, safety is put aside.”

Couriers in Dubai often lack protective gear and adequate safety training, industry experts said, with riders uneducated about critical motorcycle maneuvers like the blind-spot check. Helmets are often worn incorrectly. Contractors allocate just $27 a month for bike servicing – a small sum for a bike’s necessary oil changes and brake, tire and plug maintenance.

In response to questions from The Associated Press, Dubai’s Roads and Transportation Authority said safety remains the government’s “top priority” as it supports the delivery market’s explosive growth. Authorities referred to recently announced regulations, including penalizing riders’ use of the fast lane, requiring cooling towels and reducing riding radius.

Riders for two main companies, Deliveroo and Talabat described receiving limited insurance coverage from third-party contractors, with payouts often capped at a few hundred dollars with no death benefits or crash compensation. Several riders struck by cars on delivery trips said their contractors refused to foot hefty Dubai hospital bills, instead forcing them to fly back to Pakistan to pay for cheaper surgery.

UAE-based Talabat, which saw its deliveries increase by 100% in the first half of the year, said the platform has “a very high standard” for rider training and ensures contractors provide insurance for medical care as required by law. The company, owned by Germany-based Delivery Hero, has introduced a taskforce of the best riders, it said, “who help to ensure that our fleet across the UAE continue to adhere to the safety rules.”

Deliveroo said it has adjusted working hours “to meet particularly high customer demand,” and stressed that all riders provide their contractors with documentation, including insurance.

“Our agency operators in each market work with Deliveroo to ensure quality standards,” it said.

Neither Deliveroo nor Talabat offered crash or fatality data for their contractors. London-based Deliveroo is valued at over $8 billion, while Talabat-owner Delivery Hero is valued at over $35 billion.

Authorities transfer all riders injured in crashes to government-run hospitals, where doctors declined to comment. But workers at private hospitals said even they have seen a growing stream of food couriers with fractured limbs who fell from their bikes.

“Of course they’re getting injured. They’re overworked, dehydrated, exhausted,” said Dr. Taimoor Tung at Dubai’s Orthopedics and Spine Hospital.

One rider, Mohammed Asin, said he never would have left his family in Sialkot, Pakistan, to race through rounds as a Dubai deliveryman if it weren’t for his childhood classmate, 22-year-old Hamed Shafiq, who rode for Talabat.

“He kept saying, ‘Join me, this is the dream. We can make real money. Our families can have a better life,'” Asin said.

On Feb. 16, Asin touched down in Dubai, moved in with Shafiq and signed up for Deliveroo, ready to live out the dream.

The next day, his best friend was dead – knocked off his bike by a car that swerved into his lane. Asin, however, keeps delivering to this day.

Gig economy workers say they can no longer survive

Paris: Whether in Paris, Kuala Lumpur or California, gig economy workers fear they can no longer survive on meagre earnings from jobs that leave them increasingly vulnerable.

The term “gig” stretches back a century to jazz musicians who used it to refer to a one-off show but now the “gig economy” involves millions of people in all sorts of jobs, from Uber drivers to Deliveroo delivery teams.

Algorithm slaves

Wissem Inal does more than 700 kilometres (450 miles) a week on his scooter, delivering up to 10 takeout meals in the Paris suburbs every evening.

“At the moment, with the lockdown I end up with 500 euros ($600) a month net,” said the 32-year-old who has driven for Deliveroo since 2017 but also takes jobs for Uber Eats and Stuart.

Inal has trouble seeing the “good side” of his job at the moment and criticises calculations by Deliveroo’s algorithm that decide how much to offer him for jobs.

“A delivery that’s worth six euros at noon is worth just three euros in the evening. You can’t earn a living with this job, unless you’re willing to live like a slave.”

He recently joined an association of gig delivery drivers that seeks to improve working conditions.

“We should be able to defend ourselves,” he maintains.

‘Flexibility’ or ‘on demand’?
When Erica Mighetto began driving with Lyft three years ago, “I just loved it”, she said.

Her grown son had left the house and she thought it would be a great move until she found a job in bookkeeping or property management.

“I really enjoyed, you know, choosing my own hours,” she told AFP. “I thought life was good.”

Mighetto lived in Sacramento but would drive more than an hour to the San Francisco area on weekends because there was more work in the richer towns.

She slept in her car or shelled out $25 for a room.

Mighetto was pulling in $60-$80 an hour before expenses in 2017 but a series of rate cuts caused that to fall to $20 at the beginning of the year and to less than $10 in March.

She finds the algorithms opaque and pernicious.

“So it knows me personally,” said Mighetto. “And the bonus offers were changed, you know, based on what I was willing to accept.”

If friends were getting bonus offers of $50 for doing 20 rides per week, the algorithm would offer her $350 — but for 120 rides a week.

To get enough jobs and claim the bonus, drivers would accept lower fees.

“You’re in this like, vicious cycle black hole,” said Mighetto.

She does not buy the argument that gig work is flexible.

“I personally call it on demand work… there’s no flexibility — you have to work when there’s demand. You’re going to work late nights, long weekends and every single holiday.”

In the spring, she gave up driving for fear of catching Covid-19 but had to fight for unemployment benefits of $450 per week instead of the $167 paid to gig workers.

She received a $600 per week supplemental federal benefit that the US introduced as part of its Covid-19 stimulus measures but it ran out after four months.

Mighetto is bitter about a California referendum — backed by Uber — to overturn a state law that would have forced gig firms to recognise their drivers as employees, and pay them minimum wages and benefits.

California voters approved the measure with 58 percent of the vote.

“We shouldn’t be stripping workers of basic labour protections so people can get cheap rides,” she said.

Juggle the platforms
Twenty-seven-year-old Devon Gutekunst delivers for DoorDash, which just took in almost $3.4 billion in its stock market debut.

His smartphone offers him a job — $5.50 for a 4.6-mile delivery in 30 minutes.

“That’s the equivalent of $11 an hour, that’s too little,” said Gutekunst.

“My personal minimum is $18 an hour. I often make more than that, because I have a strategy.”

Part of it is to be selective and focus on western Los Angeles and the beach towns of Marina Del Rey and Santa Monica.

But mostly it consists of playing different platforms off against each other.

Gutekunst’s job acceptance rate for DoorDash was 12 percent that day but he said it can often be just two percent.

“To make decent money… you really have to juggle, to play with all the offers to make your living.”

$27 for 14-hour shift in Malaysia
Amal Fahmi, 24, keeps his eye glued to his cell phone and the Grab delivery app popular in Southeast Asia.

He is one of many Malaysians who makes a living delivering food, medication and shopping by motorcycle in Petaling Jaya, an affluent suburb of Kuala Lumpur.

Before Covid-19 hit, he was a driver for Grab in Johor, southern Malaysia.

“I could easily make a comfortable living. But after the virus outbreak, life became tough as many people lost their jobs and my income was reduced,” Amal told AFP as he waited outside a department store for his ninth order of the day.

Given the bleak prospects in Johor, he headed to the capital.

“There were no job opportunities in my home town as I lack academic qualifications,” he explained.

Amal earns a little more than $700 a month if he puts in long hours. That day he reached his daily average of $27 after a gruelling 14 hours.

“Look around, there are so many of us doing delivery. It is getting tough,” he said.

Amal would prefer a steady job but does not completely regret the path he has chosen.

What motivates me is I am the boss… I can manage my time and most importantly, no one scolds me,” he laughed.