Australia

After five deaths in two months, Australia's food delivery workers speak out about unsafe conditions

A delivery rider wearing a face mask is seen in Melbourne, Thursday, June 25, 2020. Source: AAP

Food delivery workers say they are under immense pressures to meet deadlines and it may be leading to unsafe behaviours and deaths in the industry.

Food delivery riders have spoken out about their working conditions as a spate of deaths in Australia puts renewed scrutiny on the industry. 

Ash, who only wanted to use his first name because he was scared of losing work, has delivered food on a bicycle for the past three years. 

He said he was placed under extreme pressure to deliver food faster, and that such demands could be contributing to an unsafe workplace.

“The companies are becoming focused on profit at the expense of worker’s rights. There is a lot more bullying tactics that are being employed by the companies in recent months,” he told SBS News.

“I’m in a WhatsApp group with a number of other riders and the number of screenshots they post from the companies where they are getting basically told they are going to get deactivated or lose their job if they are slow to deliveries,” he said.

Ash said he questioned whether these pressures were leading riders to take risks on the road that ultimately ended in tragic injury or death.

Uber Eats rider Bijoy Paul, a Bangladeshi national, died after reportedly being hit by a car at Rockdale in Sydney’s south on Saturday morning.

Another food delivery cyclist - who has not yet been identified - died in the Sydney suburb of Redfern on Monday night after being struck by a truck carrying an excavator. 

A total of five delivery riders from multiple companies have died in the last two months.

Alex Roxborough, another delivery rider, told SBS News the deaths have made him reconsider working in the industry.

“It could have easily been me. What’s the point of earning money if I’m not alive?” he said.

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He said the low rates of pay were directly linked to the safety of riders on the road.

“It happens to me and I can see how it would happen to other riders. You speed up. You get frustrated.

"The amount that we are being paid is absolutely essential to the conditions and how safely you are able to ride during our shifts."

Mr Roxborough said rates of pay varied and weren't consistent, but at times riders working on multiple apps earned as little as $10 to $15 an hour.

On Tuesday evening, the NSW government launched a taskforce to look at whether any avoidable risks may have contributed to the recent deaths.

Earlier in the day, the Transport Workers' Union called for an urgent government inquiry.

The union spoke of a lack of training for riders, no personal protective equipment being provided - such as lights, helmets, high-vis jackets or shoes - and pressure being put on riders to meet delivery times.

TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said the threat of riders being kicked off the platform for not meeting deadlines was a real risk.

“These companies don’t care if riders live or die, all they care about is getting their food on time delivered. That is no exaggeration,” he said.

“They have to answer calls within seconds and if they are minutes late they can be kicked off the platform by an algorithm, often with no recourse,” he added.

Uber Eats did not respond to detailed questions from SBS News about the allegations of pressure being put on riders, but did release a statement on the latest delivery rider death.

"In isolation this fatality is devastating. But when considered alongside other recent incidents across the on-demand food delivery sector, it is all the more concerning,” the statement read.

“It is clear that more needs to be done to improve road safety, and we are committed to playing a leading role in achieving this.”

In response to questions Deliveroo said safety was paramount to the company and that online training models on vehicle safety were mandated for new riders joining the platform.

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“The contract we have with riders explicitly states that they are free to conduct their deliveries using any route that they decide is safe and efficient. We do not set target delivery times for riders, and we do not, and never will, encourage riders to be unsafe on the roads,” a spokesperson said.

“We only look at individual riders if their average times are significantly longer than riders in their area using the same vehicle type. This is so we can address poor service outcomes for customers. Riders are not notified for individual delayed orders."

Bijoy Paul's sister, Shimul Paul, told SBS Bangla that the 27-year-old was studying for his Master’s at the University of Technology in Sydney, having arrived in Australia in 2016.

He had been working as an Uber Eats rider part-time for about a year-and-a-half.

“He died while he was delivering an Uber Eats order," Ms Paul said. "He had Uber orders in his bag on his bike - it was an order from McDonald's.”.

Federal Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter said the issue was largely a state and territory one, but committed to bringing it up at the next meeting of work health and safety ministries.

"Every worker, no matter how their employment arrangements are structured, has the right to a safe working environment and to come home to their families at the end of each day," he said in a statement. 

Additional reporting by Nakari Thorpe.

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