Riders’ Rights Concern Group: Why Europeans should care about the struggle of FoodPanda couriers in Hong Kong

The Riders’ Rights Concern Group, a labour group dedicated to food delivery workers’ rights in Hong Kong, writes for The Gig Economy Project about the FoodPanda dispute in HK, and what it says about the power imbalances within global platform capitalism.

Picture by 玄 史生

The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com.

This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in Europe is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust.

Hong Kong FoodPanda couriers are urging the company, owned by Berlin-based Delivery Hero, to update the distance calculation (map) system, as it promised in the negotiation following last year’s strike.

While this dispute appears to be an issue only concerning gig workers in Hong Kong, it offers European readers insights into some key issues in global platform capitalism and highlights the need for global solidarity transcending unequal socio-economic structures.

The map issue

In November 2021, Hong Kong’s FoodPanda delivery workers launched a two-day strike to demand higher pay and better working conditions. One of the key demands was that the app should use a new map (distance calculation) system to calculate the real road distance for pay, because the existing map only calculates the ‘Manhattan distance’ which is often shorter than road distances and thus  leads to underpayment. After the negotiation, FoodPanda promised to roll out a new map before February 2022.

However, shortly before this deadline, FoodPanda Hong Kong announced that they would not deliver the new map on time, breaking its promise. The workers’ negotiation team asked FoodPanda twice for an online meeting, which was refused by the company. Later, FoodPanda stated that the new launching time of the map will be September 2022, and the company will pay higher compensations for distance discrepancies before then. It also said that the delay in updating the map is due to the Berlin-based product team of Delivery Hero. But the new compensation remains inadequate, and perhaps no method can fully compensate for couriers’ missing pay unless the company fully updates the map.

Black box algorithms

Although demanding a new map is not a typical demand in delivery workers’ actions, it reflects a fundamental issue workers face globally: ‘black box algorithms’ determining their wage or managing their performance.

While the map calculates delivery distance, the pay rate per kilometre is as important, which FoodPanda always refuses to disclose. Consequently, workers are confused about their ever-changing pay level and have no way to confirm if the company sometimes ‘steals’ some distance pay. Also, even if FoodPanda updates the map system accordingly, it could still make workers’ overall wage level remain the same by stealthily changing the distance pay rate.

Therefore, to truly secure fair pay, workers must further struggle against secretive algorithms, which are used by nearly all gig platforms to exploit and control their workers. For instance, Uber recently started to use an opaque calculation in the U.S. to decide drivers’ pay instead of using ride time and mileage. This is a common battle that platform workers around the world have to fight, no matter in the so-called global North or South.

Global division of labour and power imbalance

In addition to common ‘tricks’ platforms are using around the world, the map issue also highlights the unequal division of labour and power relations between the companies’ headquarters, often within the global North, and the labour, which is often in the global South

Hong Kong FoodPanda couriers are working for Delivery Hero, a German company which no longer has local delivery operations there. Even though FoodPanda has offices in Hong Kong and Singapore (its regional HQ), they have little problem-solving capacity or decision-making power. During last year’s negotiation, Hong Kong’s Operation Team had to consult the German HQ repeatedly for its consent to important changes. Regarding the map, the Hong Kong office also has to completely depend on product development by the German HQ. But the latter broke its promise without any accountability to Hong Kong workers while wielding immense power over and extracting value out of them.

Since the Manhattan system for distance calculation is FoodPanda’s ‘global policy’, it could be interpreted as a ‘technological’ problem relating to local contexts. The Manhattan distance might work for Germany, but it is unfit for places with complicated geographies like Hong Kong and Taiwan. However, why should Hong Kong and Taiwan couriers have to be cheated by an algorithm which makes little sense in the local environment? The seemingly technical map problem is thus a political problem about exploitation and oppression premised upon an unequal global value chain, similar to what is found in more traditional industries.

Conclusion: Struggle beyond borders

To sum up, while Hong Kong workers are controlled by ‘black box algorithms’ just as platform workers around the world are, they are simultaneously more severely exploited partly due to the unequal power relationship in the global platform economy.

But the strike in 2021 showed that Hong Kong workers’ power and agency could make a difference. Thanks to their constant pressure on the company, Delivery Hero is testing a more accurate distance calculation method, which might benefit all couriers under Delivery Hero around the world.

Therefore, due to the transnational exploitation mechanism and the interconnectedness of workers’ future, workers and activists in different countries and regions need to unite, to not only confront shared problems, but also resist and transform the unequal relations reinforced by platform capitalism.

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