The racial discrimination faced by Hong Kong’s ethnic minority food delivery workers worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, a survey has found. Workers also suffered from shrinking income and welfare, with many being unaware of their rights.

Delivery worker survey press meeting
Researchers and delivery workers met the press on September 30 over issues of racial discrimination and employment welfare. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

After collecting questionnaires from 106 food delivery workers between March and May and discussing with 37 ethic minority workers in focus groups, researchers from Lingnan University and the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong Diocesan Pastoral Centre for Workers – Kowloon shared their findings with the press on Friday morning.

Half of the respondents said they had encountered discrimination, with “racially aggressive acts” ranging from body language to verbal abuse and swearing. The interviewees said they felt belittled and humiliated.

Among the respondents who had lived in Hong Kong for “considerable number of years,” the majority said that racial discrimination had worsened since the onset of Covid-19.

Lisa Leung, an associate professor at Lingnan’s Department of Cultural Studies, said the social stigma and media portrayal of Covid outbreaks among South Asian groups in the early months of 2021 created a “collective image” that ethnic minority groups were “virus carriers.”

As a result, some users of food delivery apps left messages such as “no South Asian riders please” on the platforms.

Lisa Leung, Lingnan University
Lisa Leung (middle), an associate professor at the Department of Cultural Studies at the Lingnan University. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Although the delivery companies have since pledged to suspend accounts involved in racial discrimination, Leung said the incident showed that stereotypes against minorities remained deeply rooted in Hong Kong.

Peter, a Pakistani delivery worker who did not provide his full name, told reporters that he had experienced several instances of discrimination during work. In one case, when he saw Peter approaching a father of two shouted to his children: “Get away! Get away! There’s disease coming.”

“Even though I am wearing mask and everything, you are still scared. Is it really the disease? Or is it because I am a ethnic minority?” Peter said, adding that sometimes residents would avoid getting into the same lift with him.

“That is very disrespectful. I think nobody would like to be treated like that,” Peter added.

Lack of protection and awareness

Apart from discrimination, the survey also found that many ethnic minority delivery workers were unaware of their rights under their current contracts or insurance plans.

About 30 per cent of respondents told the researchers that they did not know about the type of contract they had, while nearly 20 per cent said they were not aware of whether there was a contract to begin with.

Additionally, 44.7 per cent said they did not have any insurance, with 25.5 per cent saying that they are not aware of the presence of or the need for insurance.

Motorcycles of delivery workers. File photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

However, food delivery platform Foodpanda’s insurance policies apply to all of its “active independent contractors”, while its major competitor in the city, Deliveroo, said its insurance covers “all riders in Hong Kong who provide delivery services.”

An interviewee told Leung that it took two or three years to received an insurance payout if a delivery worker is involved in an accident. As such, the notion that workers will have to pay for their medical expenses has been widely shared among ethnic minority delivery workers, she said.

“It actually reflects the kind of insurance payment system basically discourages them to bargain for, or ask for, something that they are entitled to,” Leung added.

Shrinking welfare and salary

When Mr M, who declined to give his name, lost his job in tourism three years ago, becoming a food delivery driver was the only option that offered flexible hours and enough income to provide for his family of six.

Delivery worker survey press meeting
Delivery workers Peter (second left), Mr. M (second right) and M S (right). Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

But nowadays, he told reporters that riders had to work continuously for 12 to 13 hours to get the same salary they used to earn in eight or nine hours .

On Monday, Foodpanda announced it had launched a new distance calculation method which takes reference to the actual distance travelled by a rider instead of the linear delivery distance. It was one of the company’s promised changes after some 300 Foodpanda workers went on strike in 2021.

Nevertheless, M said the wage he received actually went down after the change. Usinf a trip from the Pandamart in To Kwa Wan to Elements as example, he said he used to get HK$75 from the delivery, but was now paid HK$49.

Another delivery worker, Mr.S, added that there were fewer staff benefits as well. S, who also requested anonymity, said he had been a rider for over eight years and that welfare benefits such as fuel subsidies, meal coupons and parking ticket compensation had been stripped from workers one by one.

A motorcycle of a delivery worker. File photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

“Now there’s nothing left,” he said in Cantonese in conclusion.

In light of their findings, the researchers urged the delivery platforms to make their wage calculation methods more transparent and easy-to-understand for workers. They also called for the Labour and Welfare Bureau to step up its monitoring and control over the “self-employment” system adopted by these companies.

In addition, they said the food delivery firms should make their mobile applications more “user-friendly” for non-Chinese users, such as providing translations of clients’ Chinese addresses, as well as translating Chinese complaints to allow riders to effectively respond to anything that could affect their ratings.

‘Zero-tolerance’ to racism

In response to HKFP’s inquiry, a Deliveroo spokesperson said it operates a “zero-tolerance policy” in regards to racism towards its riders. “

“Should there be any discrimination incident within our ecosystem, we would immediately investigate the event, and take appropriate actions to prevent it from happening in future,” the spokesperson added.

The delivery platform also said it has offered insurance coverage to its riders around the world since 2018, and “is always searching for the most suitable perks… such as fuel and restaurant offers.”

Foodpanda told HKFP that it had mechanisms in place to protect its delivery fleet against discrimination. It said it proactively investigated every instance of alleged discrimination, and would request customers who made discriminatory remarks to remove them. “Any necessary actions will be taken immediately, as per our usual practice,” it added.

The delivery platform said they employed staff who were proficient in Hindi and Punjabi to assist South Asian riders to tackle potential language barriers.

Foodpanda added that it had worked with fuel companies such as Esso and Shell, as well as shops from other business sectors, to offer benefits to its riders.

As for the new delivery distance calculation method that went live on Thursday, the company said it would need more time to collect relevant data and riders’ feedback. But the delivery platform said the new system did not have any impact on the minimum order service fee.

HKFP has reached out to the Labour and Welfare Bureau for comment.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.