Delivery workers in Beijing tell NPR they work 12-hour days, six days a week, monitored by apps tracking how and when they deliver hundreds of packages every day. One misstep and their pay is slashed.



Worldwide, the pandemic has moved lots more shopping online. In China these days, consumers not only order goods with a click. They expect to get them almost as fast. But as NPR's Emily Feng reports from Beijing, there is a dark side to this ultra-convenient service.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Zhang was the picture of despair the first time I met him. He'd accidentally given my package to a neighbor who took it and wouldn't give it back. Now a trembling Zhang wanted to personally pay me back for the lost item. I wouldn't take his money, but he called me non-stop for two days to apologize. I didn't understand why he was so repentant. Then Zhang explained.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) Customers complain, and after multiple complaints, we get fined very heavily.

FENG: Delivery services have mobile apps that track how many packages each worker drops off and when. Good reviews earn delivery workers virtual points in the app. But a late package or a three-out-of-five-star review - the app will deduct points.


FENG: Delivery workers are literally everywhere on Chinese urban streets these days. I'm standing on a Beijing street corner right now, and I'm jostling for space with tricycles and scooters manned by courier delivery workers. We spoke to nearly a dozen of these workers. They described grueling routines - 12-hour days, six days a week, always afraid their pay will be arbitrarily docked. Zhang allowed me to tag along on a delivery run this month, but we agreed to use only his last name because he could be punished for speaking to a reporter on the job.

ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Today is pretty relaxed - only about 60 packages to deliver. On most days, he's got about 200. I still struggle to keep up with the 21-year-old's hurried stride.

Faster, faster.

Delivery services account for almost 1% of China's entire annual GDP. Workers like Zhang delivered more than 60 billion packages last year. They only receive 15 to 30 cents per package, yet they're the crucial last-mile step and the only customer-facing link in the logistics supply chain. In China, customers can call their delivery man directly.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) Many clients really like to make life difficult. They'll call just to make you walk up 11 flights of stairs or to criticize you for not delivering their package that day. Then they threaten to report you.

FENG: And being reported carries fines of up to 2,000 RMB or about $300, equivalent to a week's wages on a good week. Disputing the fines is nearly impossible. That's why Zhang was so scared when he lost my package.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) We're fined the equivalent of the lost package's worth. Even if it's because people write the wrong address, it's still our mistake when we don't deliver.

FENG: Then there are the rules Zhang has to remember, all while running upstairs with an armload of packages.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) You're not paid at all if you deliver a package outside the requested time window. And the other day, I forgot to call two VIP clients after I delivered their packages. My mobile app then alerted me that I had been fined about half my pay that day.

FENG: Some delivery workers have gone on strike this year, fed up with unpaid or diminishing wages. Their employers have cut salaries even as revenue grows because of booming demand.

ZHANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: But Zhang says delivery work is a step up from his last job as a cook, which he left because the dirty kitchen conditions there gave him acne. Zhang now lives in a dormitory to save money for a future apartment, but he'd like to get a better job and learn a new skill. And when Zhang does quit, there's sure to be another delivery man to take his place, ready to cater to Chinese consumers who are buying more and more goods online and want them ASAP.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.