Food delivery platforms promise potential riders that they can be their own boss, enjoy flexible hours, and have opportunities to earn and grow.
The pitch is a simple and enticing one – earn money wherever and whenever you want.
This seems to be why so many people have taken up the offer, with 3% of Singapore’s resident population, or 79,000 people working for platforms such as Grab, Deliveroo and foodpanda in 2020.
In reality, the truth is slightly more complicated.
The Myth of Freedom and Flexibility
Though it is true that platform workers can technically choose to work whenever and wherever they want, platforms’ incentive systems heavily restrict this autonomy.
These incentive systems (or ‘quests’ as they are called sometimes) constitute a substantial portion of workers’ payout, and as such, play a large role in their decision-making calculus. They can stipulate where you should work, for how long you should work, and even when you can work.
Take, for example, this incentive structure, which was in play between August 6 to August 7. To qualify for the additional $130, drivers and bikers need to complete about 32 orders a day in the areas mentioned. Even if we assume that each order takes 20 minutes to complete, this adds up to 10.6 hours of driving or riding. To put things into perspective, the International Labour Organisation recommends that wage workers transporting goods shouldn’t drive for more than a total of 9 hours a day, including overtime.
Importantly, to qualify for any of these incentives, riders can only decline 10% of their orders. On Reddit and social media, there are also anecdotal accounts of how the platforms incentivise riders to work during wet weather for increased payouts.
In addition to all of this, the algorithmic allocation of work discourages platform workers from exercising their flexibility. Since it is not known how platforms allocate jobs to workers, drivers and riders end up speculating and sometimes erring on the side of caution. In a February 2022 Working Paper by the Institute of Policy Studies, a 40-year-old platform worker guessed:
Even if you have good reason, like medical reasons, go holiday. There’s no such thing as apply leave. The ranking is still there. As long as you don’t work, ranking goes down. You climb your way up there, then the moment you stop working, your ranking goes down.
Thus, after being promised that they can be their own bosses, platform workers end up working for algorithms. Unlike a real boss, you can neither talk to these artificial managers nor understand what they want.
Fatigue and Accidents
Last month, it was revealed in Parliament that 5 food delivery riders died on the job between January 2021 to June 2022.
When 12 riders were interviewed by TODAY in July, all except one said that they have been involved in an accident or have experienced a close shave on the job. They attributed this to harsh weather conditions and fatigue from long working hours. This is of concern because, as mentioned earlier, platforms’ incentive structures and opaque algorithms incentivises riders to work for longer hours, potentially even in wet and dangerous weather.
For cyclists and personal mobility device (PMD) users, riding on the road presents unique challenges too. The small size of their bikes and PMDs relative to traffic on the road, leads to asymmetrical dangers. “By right, you need to keep a 1.5m distance away from the bike, and some of the roads are narrow, but some of these drivers don’t care,” said one of the riders interviewed by TODAY. This is pertinent considering that after the government banned all motorised personal mobility devices on footpaths in 2020, food delivery riders using e-bikes have only been allowed to use the road.
Lack of Protections
In Singapore, platform workers are not protected in the same way that other employees are.
The effects of this manifests in a few ways:
Firstly, platform workers aren’t covered under the Employment Act, which means that they lack formal savings for retirement and housing under the Central Provident Fund. This is a significant problem, considering that platform employees aren’t saving much themselves.
According to the earlier mentioned IPS paper, which surveyed about 958 respondents, more than 62% of riders and drivers said that they did not have enough savings to take care of their personal and family needs for the next three to six months if they stopped working today. The same survey also found that around 84% of respondents were worried about not having enough for retirement.
Medical and earnings protection
Unlike other employees, platform workers cannot claim for work injuries under the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) – which allows workers to claim medical leave wages, medical expenses and lump sum compensation. While platform companies like Grab, Gojek and foodpanda have come up with various insurance schemes to protect their riders and drivers, payouts can be less generous. In addition to this, certain benefits on platforms can vary by performance tiers, or be tied to conditions, and as such isn’t universalised.
Legislation should change to give platform workers the same rights as other employees. This means making CPF contributions mandatory and amending WICA to cover gig workers.
Encouragingly, the government seems to be heading down this route as well. In 2021, the Ministry of Manpower set-up the Advisory Committee on Platform Workers to look into these issues. The committee has taken the principle that platform workers are similar to other delivery workers, considering the “management controls exerted by the platforms and their algorithms”. Following from this, members of the committee have since said that they have been considering mandatory CPF contributions and enhancing WICA.
Enhancements to apps themselves can also be considered. Algorithms which estimate delivery rider’s time of arrival could be enhanced to take into account the rider’s mode of transport, and the environment (whether they have to climb stairs to get to the destination, whether it’s raining etc). The National Delivery Champions Association, which is under the National Trades Union Congress, also questions if it’s time to phase out “distracting in-app notifications that create unnecessary stress and pressure”. It has also stated that it is looking to work with platforms to be consulted on changes to payment rates, and to push for transparency in incentive structures. Its advisor, Labour MP, Ms Yeo Wan Ling has also called for stronger legislative backing to better represent point-to-point self-employed persons to increase their protection.
In all, the current relationship between delivery workers and platforms is imbalanced, favouring the platforms. Legislation needs to correct these imbalances by addressing issues with safety and financial security.
The #EveryWorkerMatters Conversations
On August 11 2022, the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) launched a public engagement exercise, titled #EveryWorkerMatters Conversations. Through the exercise, NTUC seeks to understand the concerns, priorities, and aspirations of workers, and how NTUC can support them in their working lives.
The conversations were launched because NTUC thinks that the Singapore economy now stands at an inflection point. Rapid changes in technology, increased competition, and new ways of working have fundamentally changed the economy. During a press conference launching the initiative, Secretary-General Ng Chee Meng pointed to platform workers as an example of this.
Share your thoughts on what the future of work should look like in Singapore, and how we can get there by here.