Hardships and tears behind China's booming food delivery service

A booming industry

Zhou Wu (not his real name) rolls up his sleeve to reveal a scar on his right arm, a reminder of an accident in which he hit the curb and was thrown off his scooter to avoid an electric tricycle coming right at him.

After the accident happened, the first thing that occurred to him wasn't if he was injured, but "whether or not the food in the box spilled out."

Zhou Wu has had three road accidents since 2015 when he became a food deliveryman in Beijing.

He "dared not tell the company because they would not pay for the medical bill, but might even fine you."

The 22-year-old from Hebei province tried different blue-collar jobs before he became a deliveryman, which is the job he's done the longest and "is most profitable".

Zhou is one in the expanding force of deliverymen as the online food delivery service becomes increasingly popular in China's cities.

According to a recent report, around 150 million Chinese used online catering services as of June 2016.

The number rose by 32 per cent in six months and keeps growing.

"In the peak hour, the orders keep coming to you and you cannot refuse to deliver," said Zhou, who once delivered food to eight different places in one single hour.

Not an easy job

Zhou is a relative newcomer to the trade. He is called a "golden deliveryman".

In his company, deliverymen are graded based on the number of positive comments they receive from customers and they fall into seven tiers accordingly.

Those at the top tier, who are called "divine deliverymen", have to receive 3,000 positive comments before obtaining that status.

Couriers' income is related with the number of orders they finish.

For each order, a courier receives a fixed payment of one yuan (14 cents) and a bonus based on his tier.

Zhou associated the rating system with an online game he used to play.

"In the game, I gain experiences and go to a higher level by slaying the monster. As a deliveryman, I gain experiences by going around and sending food," Zhou said.

But the reality is always crueler than the game.

Food with soup is the last thing a courier likes to deliver.

There is a saying in the trade: "If you have not sent a bowl of soup noodles to a place three kilometers away, you are not a real deliveryman."

Huang Yuanbin (not his real name) is one of Zhou's fellow couriers.

One day, he received an order for three bowls of soup noodles.

It was a rainy day in late November, and the freezing air whipped his face.

"Though the straight-line distance was three kilometers, it was actually four or five kilometers away," Huang said.

He did not have time to be concerned about himself while braving the cold air, because he worried about getting to the customer's home before the soup noodles got cold.

Half an hour later, he arrived at the destination.

To his relief, Huang found the noodles in the thermal box were still hot and the soup didn't spill.

A woman who seemed to be in her 20s opened the door.

When Huang handed the noodles over to her, she said nothing and slammed the door shut.

Huang did not even have a chance to ask her to give him a positive comment.

On his way back, Huang saw a critical comment the woman left on the food service app, blaming him because "the noodles stick together".

Huang said "tears slid down his cheeks" in the cold wind.

He said he had suffered many hardships in his nearly three decades of life, but "he never felt so upset".

Who is the customer?

For couriers, weekends are the busiest time.

"Why do so many people not cook for themselves?"

Zhou Wu asked himself when he first entered the trade.

He found the answer later.

Once, he arrived at the door of a customer and knocked repeatedly, but no one answered.

He dialed the customer's phone number, wondering if he went to the wrong building.

Finally a man opened the door, angrily cursing Zhou for disrupting him while he was playing a video game.

Looking into the house, Zhou saw a messy room with the computer screen shining.

Over the following weekends, Zhou met similar customers - people who are busy working Monday through Friday but who stay at home to kill time on the weekend.

Harsh regulations

With the growing number of orders, regulations have become tougher for deliverymen.

In Zhou Wu's company, there are more than 40 possible violations with fines ranging from 50 yuan to 2,000 yuan.

If a deliveryman fails to bring the meal on time and receives a complaint, he faces a potential penalty of 2,000 yuan.

Zhou said one of his fellow couriers once clicked the "complete" key on the app on his mobile phone half a minute before delivering it to the customer.

Later, the customer complained, which led to a 2,000 yuan penalty, almost half the courier's monthly income.

Other violations include untidy dress and poor appearance of the motorcycle, while behaviour such as chatting in a group and sitting on customer seats in a restaurant while waiting for an order are also prohibited.

To keep an eye on couriers, the food delivery company hires quality controllers to take pictures of on-the-job courier misbehavior.

The quality controllers are strictly protected and if a deliveryman curses, bribes or beats a quality controller, he will be fired and permanently blacklisted from the trade.

Despite the harsh regulations, an increasing number of newcomers are becoming deliverymen.

At the recruitment centre for deliverymen where Zhou passed the test, the instructor told candidates, "Here in this room, we have 100 people applying to become a deliveryman, but in the next room, maybe 150 people are leaving their posts."

"This is a hard job; be prepared if you are determined to do it," the instructor said.

Ten seconds later, no one had left the room.