Australia’s delivery deaths: the riders who never made it and the families left behind

TĐH: This can happen anywhere, even Vietnam. I imagine some people are hostile to delivery folks because they fear that delivery people may spread COVID-19.

Three food delivery riders recently died on the job, and their families are left with uncertain futures, and many questions

Lihong Wei is the window of Xiaojun Chen, a delivery gig worker who died on the job in Australia, October 2020.

Lihong Wei is the window of Xiaojun Chen, a delivery gig worker who died on the job in Sydney. Photograph: Naaman Zhou/The Guardian

Naaman Zhou

Naaman Zhou@naamanzhouFri 20 Nov 2020 19.00 GMT, The Guardian

Chow Khai Shien died three days before the Melbourne lockdown lifted, holding someone else’s food.

He had been in Australia for five years, having arrived from Malaysia at the age of 31. First he was a student, then a chef, working part-time in a restaurant inside a casino. When the pandemic descended, like many other people around the world, he turned to food delivery – ferrying burgers and chips, burritos, and pizzas, across the city on a small motorised scooter. The car hit him on the corner of King and La Trobe streets at 7pm on a Saturday night.Dying to work: the dangers facing Australia’s food delivery driversRead more

Chow was on a delivery when he died, which meant someone was expecting him. But for two and a half days, his death did not register in Australia.

The police did not know who he was. The news release that went out on the Monday called him a “yet to be identified” man. DoorDash, the company he was delivering for, did not say anything until Tuesday, and only after a reporter working for Chinese-language media identified him on the morning of 27 October.

His sister in Singapore initially thought he had just lost his phone and would reply soon. But over 26 hours, she realised, with a slow sinking of her heart, that he would not.

Chow Khai Shien, a delivery gig worker who died in Australia October 2020.

Chow Khai Shien, a delivery gig worker who died in Australia October 2020. Photograph: Supplied

Two weeks earlier in Sydney, Dede Fredy, a 36-year-old Uber Eats rider from Indonesia, and Xiaojun Chen, a 43-year-old from China, died in separate road collisions. Fredy was hit on Sydenham Road, and witnesses saw food strewn across the intersection. Chen was hit by a bus in Zetland.

Chen worked for Hungry Panda, a UK-based company that targets the Chinese community in various countries (Australia, the UK, the US, New Zealand, but not China). Fredy left behind a wife and young son, Chen had a wife and two children, aged eight and 15. Chow, who was 36, had no children, but left behind two siblings and his mother.

In search of ‘a better life’

Chen and his widow, Lihong Wei, are from a rural area of Shaanxi province in China. The pair lived in a small village, and had been married since 2002. Before he came to Australia in 2018, he worked in construction, and she worked in a clothing factory. In China, Chen was making the equivalent of A$16,000 a year, Wei says. By delivering food in Australia, he made much more, and he sent it all back.

On an afternoon in early November, Wei is in Sydney for the first time in her life, for her husband’s funeral. From a small serviced apartment in Chatswood, in the city’s north, she can see streets lined with restaurants. But for the past three weeks, she says, she has been eating instant noodles, because the food in Australia is too expensive.

The only decoration in her room is a picture of Chen, framed in black. She speaks flatly, says “thank you” a lot, and pauses to cry frequently. The local primary school is across the road, and on a sunny Friday, the noise floats up of the children on their way to swimming.

Remembrance photo and offering of Xiaojun Chen.

A photo of Xiaojun Chen in the apartment where his widow is staying in Sydney. Photograph: Naaman Zhou/The Guardian

“I find Sydney is very beautiful,” she says in Mandarin. “It’s so nice. But at the same time, I can’t stop thinking about my husband dying here. I feel very, very sad.

“When he first decided to come to Australia, my mother and I were against it. But he said he is approaching 40, and he doesn’t want his children to have the same tough life as we did. And he also was thinking about his own parents, he wanted to have a chance to give them a better life.”

Wei went to the room where he lived, a small space in a suburb she doesn’t know the name of. “I felt it was very, very painful,” she says. “Because when he left China, we went shopping together. Now, all the things are still in his room. Just he was no longer there.”

She was flown to Australia by Hungry Panda, who also paid for the accommodation, and for that she is grateful. She is here to pick up his ashes, and take them back to China. In October, an Australian, Ashlee Green, who lived near where Chen died, started a GoFundMe for the family, raising $40,000. Wei met Green, and was full of praise for her and for Australians generally.

“I find the Australian people are very nice,” she says. “They all are willing to help me.”

The money will help Wei look after her elderly parents, and Chen’s father. Wei says Chen was closer to her mother (his mother-in-law), than he was to his own. At the time, the family had not told his father that his son was dead.

Both Chen and Wei are descended from a long line of labourers, who lost the use of their bodies through work. All their parents have acquired disabilities. They broke their legs in the fields and on the farm. When their parents worked in the fields, Wei says, they would have to carry heavy buckets of water, back and forth. Sometimes they fell.

Her husband left to make a better life. They knew the risks of food delivery, but Wei says Chen was more confident about delivering in Australia. He told her construction work at home was riskier. He described Australia as a country with a good legal system, a “rule of law country”.

Flowers left in Zetland near where food delivery rider Xiaojun Chen was killed in Sydney in a collision.

Flowers left in Zetland near where food delivery rider Xiaojun Chen was killed in Sydney in a collision. Photograph: Ashlee Green

“He was so hopeful,” Wei says. “He believed Australia was an advanced country. It was a rule of law country, as long as he worked hard here he can have a better life.”

On 16 November, the day after Wei flew out of Sydney, Hungry Panda was due to appear before a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into the gig economy and the future of work.

It would have been Hungry Panda’s first public statement since Chen died. Fifteen minutes after they were scheduled to arrive, the chair of the inquiry, Daniel Mookhey, had to announce that the company had not shown up.

“Hungry Panda has failed to attend and not given any explanation,” he said.

More than an hour later, its delivery manager, Luna Wei, sent an email of apology. “I’m really sorry that I didn’t attend this important meeting on time today,” she wrote. “Recently, I have been busy with the safety education of riders. Today, some riders came to the company without an appointment to discuss some delivery problems with me, which caused me to fail to arrive at the meeting site on time.”

‘We can plan it when I go back’

Chow Khai Shien’s uncle died in a motorbike accident. Chow’s sister, Chow Khai Sing, says their mother told him not to work in food delivery. She would have not let him, if he had been in Malaysia, Chow Khai Sing said.

But he was always an independent child – a classic older brother. He stopped taking pocket money at 16. He started working part-time. He still sent money home, but he loved Melbourne, his sister says, because of the freedom he got from living alone, in a different country. And, he said, Australia’s roads were safer than Malaysia’s.

“Sometimes I would tell him, ‘Hey don’t make mum worry, just come home. You have a place to stay’,” Chow Khai Sing says from Singapore, where she now lives.

When the pandemic hit, Chow’s mother begged him to come home. Chow Khai Sing told him there was a food cart near her house that was up for lease.

“I told him maybe ‘You can become a chef here, I can became the owner of the restaurant’,” she says. “He told us ‘Yeah, yeah, we can plan it when I go back.”

Chow Khai Shien loved his life in Melbourne.

Chow Khai Shien loved his life in Melbourne. Photograph: Supplied

Chow told his family he would come back in January, when flights became cheaper. Until then, he would stay in Melbourne to make a bit more money.

It is not lost on Chow Khai Sing that her brother was on a delivery when he died, yet she did not find out from the food company.

“They probably just received a complaint from a customer,” she says. “‘Hey, my food rider hasn’t arrived’. And you can imagine a food rider is very conscious for their stars, they all want that five stars, they want to get extra rewards, when they can deliver faster or pick up more. That is also a sad part. When they are rushing now, to pick up the food, accidents happen.”

A DoorDash spokeswoman declined to say when the company found out that Chow had died, or whether anyone investigated why he failed to deliver on the night he died.

‘Give workers the rights they need’

A survey conducted by the Transport Workers Union in September found food deliverers earned an average of just $10.42 per hour after costs – 73% said they were worried about being “seriously hurt or killed” at work.

Some workersin Australia are entitled to compensation for their families if they die in the workplace, or as a result of a work-related injury. In NSW, their dependants are entitled to a lump sum payment of $834,200 and weekly payments of $149.30 for each dependent child until they turn 16. In Victoria, those who qualify are entitled to $636,470, and a dependent partner may receive a weekly pension for three years.

Employees are, by and large, covered by these schemes. But under Australian labour law, all three men were classed as independent contractors.

Their eligibility for these schemes varies, and it can change from person to person, contract to contract. The amount their families are guaranteed to receive depends on the individual insurance – if any – that the delivery companies provide for them. For example, UberEats’ insurance policy gives dependants a maximum of a $400,000 lump sum, and potentially $5,000 for each spouse or dependant.

Both Wei and Chow Khai Sing are still unclear how much money they will receive from Hungry Panda and DoorDash respectively. Chow says they have been offered “much less” than $100,000.

DoorDash has declined to say how much compensation would be paid to Chow’s family.

Food delivery is a global business model, thought up in Silicon Valley and now successfully exported around the world.

In California in November, voters narrowly voted in favour of Proposition 22. The state had been one of the few in the world to expressly legislate to give gig workers the same rights as employees. But the ballot measure, written by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart, and backed by millions of dollars in campaigning, overturned the law.

Michael Kaine, the national secretary of the TWU, says California’s example should be avoided in Australia. Instead, he proposes a more “flexible” independent tribunal system that can listen to evidence from riders and make orders granting extra benefits.

“Our warning is that regulation must be flexible enough to give workers the rights they need without lighting up a pathway for cashed-up tech giants to again restructure their businesses to get around these rights,” he says.

“California’s example should be a warning to Australia to not go down the path of giving rights based on whether a rider qualifies as an employee or not.”

The industrial relations minister, Christian Porter, says the individual companies should be encouraged to offer better insurance, safety training and compensation for their workers.Big tech threw $200m at a ballot measure to hurt gig economy workers. And they wonRoss BarkanRead more

“There are potential commercial advantages for companies that go the extra step to look after their workforce, whether they are employees or contractors,” he says. “As with any other employer, those with the best reputation and policies that benefit workers will be more sought after as the workplace of choice.”

But four riders told the NSW parliament their pay had actually been cut during the pandemic. Diego Franco said the widespread job losses during the pandemic meant there were more riders.

“It is what they [the companies] want,” Franco said. “They have high demand for the orders because customers are just at home, and they have many people willing to work on these jobs because they have no other options.

“What do they do? They make more money, and they pay less for us, because there are too many people willing to work.”

With additional reporting by Ai Ling Zhou

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