50 days on, ‘nothing changes’ for UAE delivery riders

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5 min read
Revenue in the online food delivery segment is expected to reach US$2.79 billion by 2026. (AFP)
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  • Rise in fuel prices, scorching heat and constant rush to deliver due to 'unrealistic promises' made to clients by online platforms are impacting lives of thousands of riders
  • It's time to start accepting slightly longer delivery timelines, treating riders with empathy, and constantly demanding better and humane working conditions for the riders

More than 50 days have passed since riders from the two online food delivery aggregator platforms — Deliveroo and Talabat — staged a mass walkout demanding better wages and working conditions. The act itself indicated severe desperation of the riders who are aware of potential repercussions as strikes and unionization are illegal in the UAE.

“Yet nothing has changed for us. We are still getting AED7.5 commission per order, while contractors earn more. [Some platforms offer nominally better commission of AED9 per order]. In fact, our situation has worsened as contractors have threatened us with harsh consequences for protesting,” said a 20-something delivery executive seated at a makeshift shaded area outside a parking lot as he waited to pick up orders for delivery.

Increase in fuel prices, rise in temperature and the constant rush to deliver due to unrealistic promises made to customers by delivery platforms are taking a serious toll on the lives of thousands of riders.

For perspective, currently there are approximately 15,000 delivery riders employed by Talabat alone [in the UAE], which happens to have the largest delivery fleet.

For the food delivery ecosystem to become more equitable, the need of the hour is to raise awareness among all stakeholders including delivery platforms, third-party contractors, and end consumers.

Revenue in the online food delivery segment is expected to reach US$2.79 billion by 2026, according to Statista. As of 2022, restaurant-to-consumer delivery is the largest segment of the market with a projected market volume of US$1.54 billion.

If these data are anything to go by, the number of riders on the road too is set to increase. To protect riders from potential accidents, there is need for concrete action.

In fact, as the number of motorcycle-related traffic accidents increased from 300 in 2020 to 400 in 2021. The Roads and Transport Authority and the Dubai Police General Command had already jointly launched an awareness campaign for the delivery sector under the slogan #payfortheirsafety.

The big question, however, is what will it take to make the food delivery ecosystem equitable?

While discrimination of any form [race, religion, nationality, colour, gender, or disability] is prohibited in the UAE, the new labour law that came into effect in February 2022 took things a notch higher.

Third-party contractors who recruit riders for the delivery platforms must offer a base salary and other benefits to the migrant workers as outlined by the country’s labour laws. The incentives must come on top of that.

Among various promising developments, it proposed setting a minimum wage. To safeguard migrant workers against potential harassment, the new regulation also stipulates employers cannot withhold employees’ documents such as passports. Importantly, they cannot charge workers recruitment fees.

Currently riders pay for their visa, health insurance and protective gear even as they are recruited by third-party contractors. In addition, they pay for fuel, accommodation, food, and frequent fines. At the end they are left with little to remit home where large families tend to depend on the income of single breadwinners.

“The new labour law that came into effect in February this year was considered as a massive step forward in terms of its flexibility and comprehensiveness. But the reality for many migrant workers remains unchanged,” Adam Coogle, Deputy Director, MENA Division, Human Rights Watch told TRENDS.

“The UAE government needs to emphasize on the enforcement of the law, hold non-complying rider agencies accountable while recognizing that until workers are allowed to unionize and strike, these abuses will persist.”

Companies must be made accountable

The commission-based pay per order model is clearly unsustainable. It puts lives at risk since riders are in a perpetual state of rush to deliver as many orders as possible, often ignoring speed limits leading to hefty fines that they must pay. If anything, it’s a vicious cycle.

On the other hand, delivery platforms such as Talabat are considered high value tenants in commercial locations as they pay a premium in rent. Not only that Talabat also signed up soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo as its brand ambassador in March 2022 for what must have been a hefty deal. Yet it is turning a blind eye to a deeply disturbing and exploitative riders’ situation.

“A company that can afford to bring on board the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo as brand ambassador can most definitely afford to pay a liveable wage to the workers who are behind the company’s success,” Coogle stated.

He added: “As brand ambassador, Christiano Ronaldo, who risks having his image tarnished by association, should use his leverage and platform to ensure that Talabat and their partner agencies adequately compensate the workers and provide them with overtime, health insurance, and other benefits they are entitled to as per the labour law.”

The delivery platforms must play a responsible role in offering a decent commission structure to the riders while holding third-party contractors accountable for any misdoings. In addition, the delivery timelines must be made more realistic to ensure rider safety.

Another question that comes to mind is if Talabat UAE has earned the ‘Great Place to Work’ title in 2022 for being an “employer-of-choice,” is it fair to overlook the basic rights of the riders who are backbone of their business?

Meanwhile, Fairwork, a project is run by University of Oxford that highlights best and worst labour practices in the platform economy, ranked Talabat at the bottom in Egypt as one of the most “unfair” digital platforms. Is Talabat UAE far off?

What needs to change

For the food delivery ecosystem to become more equitable, the need of the hour is to raise awareness among all stakeholders including delivery platforms, third-party contractors, and end consumers.

To start with, third-party contractors who recruit riders for the delivery platforms must offer a base salary and other benefits to the migrant workers as outlined by the country’s labour laws. The incentives must come on top of that.

The delivery platforms must play a responsible role in offering a decent commission structure to the riders while holding third-party contractors accountable for any misdoings. In addition, the delivery timelines must be made more realistic to ensure rider safety.

Customers must bear a part of the responsibility too. Discontinuing subscription, as many consumers did soon after the Talabat riders’ strike, isn’t a sustainable solution. Instead, a good start will be accepting slightly longer delivery timelines, treating riders with more empathy, and constantly demanding better and humane working conditions for the riders.

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