A few policy changes could make food delivery better for everyone

During the pandemic lockdowns this year, food delivery became an essential service. As more people used it, more attention was paid to the working conditions of the people doing the deliveries. Those conditions are not good.

Delivering food on a bike or scooter for a platform like Uber Eats or Deliveroo is a dangerous job which doesn’t pay much. Workers can reportedly earn as little as $10 per hour. And five workers have been killed in the last two months.

Thanks to campaigning by the Transport Workers’ Union, and the diligent reporting of Naaman Zhou in the Guardian, many people are wondering what we can do to fix this.

One solution would be to ban gig-economy based food delivery, or similarly to organise boycotts of food delivery platforms. The trouble is that the delivery workers are earning relatively good money. A common theme in Zhou’s reports is that the victims were living frugally in Australia so that they could send their wages to family overseas. Cutting off that opportunity might make us feel better, but would leave the workers worse off.

Instead, consider this. Delivery riders are earning too little money to do a dangerous job. That means we can attack this problem simultaneously in two ways: we can get them more money, and we can make the work safer.

Mo money, fewer problems

First, let’s look at the money.

The NSW government’s response to these deaths is apparently focused on making sure that companies are meeting workplace safety standards and providing riders with insurance. (A Federal inquiry a few years ago had already dinged the companies for failing to do that, but perhaps this time they’ll take it seriously.)

That’s nice, but I think things would be even better if the workers were paid more. The minimum wage is $19.84 per hour. If gig economy workers end up making less than that, then the platforms they’re using should find themselves facing fines and criminal charges.

In practice, that might translate into minimum work times for gig economy platforms. Signing on to make one food delivery would entitle you to, say, at least a full hour’s minimum wage. The people who work in price setting at these companies are smart, and I’m sure they can figure out ways to incentivise people to work harder and earn more money. But it’s completely unreasonable to expect workers to complete one ten-minute job, then wait on their own time until later in the hour when a second ten-minute job arrives.

Someone who’s taken Econ 101 might worry that imposing a floor on gig workers’ hourly wages will result in higher unemployment. It turns out that’s not true in theory, but more importantly, the message from the empirical evidence is clear: yeah, nah. Imposing a minimum wage on food delivery will result in workers earning more, and not change much else.

Ride right out of the danger zone

The other part of the problem is safety. A food delivery worker’s job is risky, simply because it’s dangerous for anyone to ride a bike or a scooter in Australia. The mortality rate has stayed flat for two decades, at roughly five deaths per week, after a big fall when helmets became compulsory in 1990.

A chart of deaths of bicycle, motorcycle and scooter users. The series hovers around 250 from the early 1990s to 2020.

A few attempts have been made to reduce this total. In 2016, for instance, NSW introduced a regulation that cars must allow at least a 1 metre gap when overtaking cyclists. Nothing happened.

Many councils are building more off-road cycleways, which could help the mortality rate of recreational riders, who can choose the paths they take. But delivery drivers, by definition, need to ride everywhere. And many delivery workers use scooters, which are just as dangerous but can’t go on cycle paths.

To help delivery workers, we have to change the behaviour of car drivers.

Some drivers intensely dislike having to share the road, and behave accordingly. In fact, many car drivers are happy that the food delivery workers are dead.

Right now, it’s easy to kill someone and not be charged, even with dangerous driving. Out of the five recent deaths of delivery riders, only one has resulted in charges. For incidents that are less severe, but still life-threatening, the chance that the car driver receives even a police caution is essentially nil. Until that changes, car drivers will continue to put scooter and bike users at risk.

The Netherlands has a policy of ‘strict liability’: if a car hits a bike for any reason, the car driver is presumed to be at fault, and will face serious criminal charges. I don’t think there’s any prospect of that policy being adopted in Australia. The hostility to cycling is too deeply entrenched.

But something similar might work: strict liability with a small penalty. If a car hits a scooter or bike for any reason, the car driver automatically loses their license for six months. I think that penalty is small enough that it has a reasonable chance of being enacted, even with a Transport Minister who is iffy about bikes and scooters. But it is significant enough that it would influence drivers’ behaviour.

Your order is on its way (carried by a human)

It’s possible that the gig economy needs to be completely overhauled, in a way that reverses the casualisation of work and restructures our whole economy. While we wait for that day to arrive, we can improve the lives of delivery riders by having them earn more money in safer conditions. Making those changes would be as easy as ordering take-away.