In a scene which has become rare since Hong Kong’s 2019 protests, police warned a group of striking food delivery workers that they may use force to disperse their protest against wages cuts and other issues.

The workers for Foodpanda, an online food and grocery delivery app, gathered outside the company’s offices on Tuesday as they entered negotiations with management over their demands for better conditions.

nov 16 foodpanda strike sheung wan police
Police raised a flag to warn FoodPanda strikers against participating in an unauthorised assembly, and that force may be used. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Long waiting times at restaurants, an inability to reject orders, cuts to delivery fees and inadequate insurance coverage are among their grievances. 

The rally outside Guangdong Investment Tower in Sheung Wan prompted the hoisting on Tuesday of a police warning flag, which warned the workers they were taking part in an illegal assembly and that officers might use force if they did not disperse.

The blue flag was frequently used during the anti-extradition bill protests, which died down after Covid-19 restrictions on gatherings came into force and as police stepped up countermeasures through a national security law and other enforcement action.

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Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The strike began last Saturday, and workers gathered outside different branches of Pandamart, Foodpanda’s grocery collection points, to stage protests.

As Foodpanda and its workers went into negotiation, a labour representative said drivers would not rule out further strikes at weekends and peak hours if their demands were not met.

HKFP spoke to two workers to learn about their demands. They declined to be identified by their full names.

KK, a representative of a group of workers in Kwun Tong, told HKFP on Monday it was not clear whether the delivery workers were considered to be self-employed or employees of Foodpanda.

nov 16 foodpanda strike sheung wan
Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The representative said he had been told by some Foodpanda company staff that they were considered to be self-employed, but their contract terms did not seem to bear this out.

“[We] seem to be caught between two stools now: we’re neither self-employed nor employees,” said KK.

While Foodpanda provides insurance for delivery workers, the amount was insufficient, said KK, who delivers orders by cycle.

Those on strike also demanded a minimum order fee: HK$50 for motorbike riders, and HK$30 for cyclists and those who walk to deliver orders.

KK’s bicycle and delivery bag. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

KK, who started delivering for the company part-time around six months ago, said he was attracted by the company’s promise that he could earn up to HK45,000 per month, a promise he now calls “exaggerated.”

Apart from the decreasing delivery fees per order, the cyclist said his income was also hit by the improving Covid-19 pandemic situation.

“There are fewer orders now because the pandemic situation has improved,” said KK. “Yet the company kept on hiring more drivers even with fewer orders.”

nov 16 foodpanda strike sheung wan
Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“There have been rumours that the company will beat around the bush [during the negotiation],” said KK. “There may be a step-up in our action.”

As workers met company representatives on Tuesday, two dozen drivers stood in a line outside the building, holding signs displaying slogans and their demands.

nov 16 foodpanda strike sheung wan police
Foodpanda strikers were made to line up as police checked their ID cards. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Mr. Singh, a motorcycle delivery driver who has been working for Foodpanda for two and a half years, told HKFP he was seeking respect as well as better pay. He said he was often treated with “no respect” by restaurants and customers.

“We go to restaurants to pick up orders, we are also doing our jobs, they said: ‘Stay outside don’t come in!’” said Singh. “We are also human, we also want respect.”

The motorcyclist came to Hong Kong from India around three years ago, and is the sole provider for his family of four. He said he worried “so much” about his family’s livelihood and went on strike “for the future.”

nov 16 foodpanda strike sheung wan
Mr. Singh. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

“I have two babies. If I no work, if the company don’t support us, how can we [I] care about my family?”

The strike was coordinated between Chinese and South Asian workers but to Singh race was not important. “This is not a Chinese, Indian, or Pakistani strike, these are all Foodpanda drivers, this is a community.”

Soon after Singh spoke to HKFP, two workers Waqas Fida and Mr. Cheng, as well as Foodpanda’s operations director Pedro Dias, spoke to the press ahead of their meeting.

nov 16 foodpanda strike sheung wan
Foodpanda’s operations director Pedro Dias. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Fida held up screenshots of emails and messages between drivers and Foodpanda, which included a notification from the company to terminate a driver’s contract, as well as messages telling another driver that their account may be suspended if they fail to pick up a restaurant order.

There was a “communication gap” between the company and workers, said Fida.

“Because when we are working for one of the biggest companies in the world, Foodpanda, we have no communication here, don’t have any communication, director or representative that we can raise our voice to him,” said Fida, adding there was also a language barrier for some drivers who did not know English well.

Cheng said workers showed up on Tuesday because the company’s response last Sunday had failed to calm anger.

nov 16 foodpanda strike sheung wan
An email Foodpanda sent to a drivers to terminate his contract. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

In a letter to drivers last Sunday, Dias wrote that “while [Foodpanda] is lowering the base service fees for orders in certain districts, it does not mean that the total income of our delivery workers have decreased.”

The letter mentioned bonuses during peak hours, which Cheng said were mainly for weekend orders.

“There are close to no peak hour bonuses from Monday to Friday. Does that mean if I want to have a family day on Sunday, I will lose my money?” said Cheng. “Taking my money away and then giving it back in the form of bonuses, and then saying that our income had not decreased but had increased – bullshit!”

Cheng said he would stay on strike even though he fears repercussions from the company.

A leaflet KK handed out to fellow delivery drivers. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The operations director said before the meeting that he was hoping for a “fruitful and productive discussion, and would like to “reassure everyone that we did not call the police.”

After the representatives entered the office building for the meeting, several police officers asked a dozen drivers to line up so their identity card numbers could be recorded. One police officer did not respond when a HKFP reporter asked if the force would take any follow-up action.

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Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.