After the gold rush comes the delivery-worker glut

All vacancies are filled, but demand remains strong, up by as much as 25 percent since February.

Photo by Kuang Da

Photo by Kuang Da

By YU Hao


HU Gaopeng leaned on his bike and started playing with his phone. The entire day, he delivered only 11 orders. Granted, spring is the low season. People love eating out when the weather in Beijing turns warm. But in previous springs, he got pinged at least twice as much.

Splitting his time delivering food and taking care of his grandson, the 57-year-old averages 100 yuan a day even as a higher-paid “elite-level deliveryman.” “I used to make more in half a day,” he said.

Golden Age

Deliverymen in Beijing are complaining about not having enough work. ZHAO Chen, who is from the northwestern province of Gansu, blames the glut of newcomers. He knows many from his hometown. All of them came to “make at least 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) a month,” almost twice the average salary of a college graduate. But that was a few months ago when Covid restrictions were first lifted and infections soared. Things are different now.

Hiring agencies made the same observation. There are so many people looking for jobs that all vacancies are filled. Deliverymen, instead of signing up with different apps, work for agencies that consolidate orders from everywhere and assign them.

“Last December, as long as I was signed in, there was work. Once I delivered twelve orders on the way over and picked up another twelve on the way back!” said YU Hong, a former factory worker. He could make up to 500 yuan a day. Business was so good that he worked through the Chinese New Year. But after the holidays, his income tanked.

Demand, in fact, remains strong. A dispatcher at a hiring agency says volume has been going up since February – by as much as 25 percent on weekends and holidays – and that he needs more workers this year than before.

But supply quickly outstripped demand. WU Kai, who shut down his failing secondhand car business in January, is one of those joining the gold rush. With bonuses and rewards, he makes about 8,000 yuan a month – not quite the “10,000 yuan guaranteed” as promised.

Wu rents a small bedroom on the outskirts of Beijing. With no family to support and a little spare money from his previous business, he is “not able to endure as much hardship” as his fellow deliverymen. Many of them stay up until two in the morning for the late-night rush and sleep on bunkbeds crowed eight to ten in a room. “If one person snores, everyone wakes up,” he said.

Deliverymen like to live in the Liangmaqiao neighborhood for its convenient location and cheap rent. PENG Shuai, who owns a bike store there, says he gets buyers almost every day. He is friendly with many customers. “This one used to be a cook,” he went through his contact list. “This one had depression so his wife took him home.”

AN Lei, who has two children to support, feels a lot of pressure to work hard and save money. He followed his brother-in-law to Beijing this year after construction gigs dried up. Still learning to navigate the big city, he makes only 7,000 yuan a month, much less than his more experienced brother-in-law. He recently posted a video of himself walking in big strides carrying huge bags in both hands. “March forward fearlessly, for life,” says the caption.

“We don’t see a significant jump in total volume. Demand, from our perspective, has been stable. But supply really changed a lot,” YU Yang, CEO of the gig job app Quhuo, told Jiemian News. In his view, the surplus of delivery workers is caused by friction in other sectors of the economy.

Manufacturing and real estate are still reorienting themselves from an eventful three years. The impact is more deeply felt in poor, populous places with small service industries. According to data on Quhuo, Henan, Hebei and Shanxi – all northern provinces with heavy industries – are the biggest exporters of delivery workers.

Yu Hong, the deliveryman who worked through the Chinese New Year, is from Henan. For years, he has been chasing jobs. The factory he once worked at was in the southern province of Jiangsu. When it was shut down five years ago, he moved to Beijing to deliver food for a living. His wife stays behind to tend the field and take care of the children. She also works at a local factory, which pays only 2000 yuan a month, not nearly enough for their mortgage and the children’s expenses. 

The food delivery market has become saturated since Yu started five years ago. Growth slowed from 55 percent in 2018 to 20 percent in 2022. Except in special times like last winter, making money is only getting harder.

Two weeks on the road

“People who bought motorbikes last year came back to me and said they needed an electric bike instead. Gas is too expensive,” Peng, the bike shop owner, said.

The newcomers console themselves that things will improve when they are better at navigating the roads and gaming the algorithm. Plus, business always picks up in early summer. May is here, but orders are still sparse. Wu, three months in, is already thinking about quitting.

He will probably drive for a relative’s trucking company in Xinjiang. The rent for his shoebox bedroom in Beijing is enough for a one-bed apartment there.

Peng Shuai took out a receipt from March. “The guy bought a bike on March 30 and returned it on April 10. He decided to do something else in less than two weeks,” he said.

“Fewer people signed up in April. Maybe it’s the weather. Construction restarts when it warms up,” a hiring agent says.

Risk not worth taking

Yu will hang on for a little longer. He checked his phone. Four orders popped up, each paying less than five yuan – not really worth the gas. Large orders are gone in seconds, he says, and he has seen ads for bidding software.

He decided to not try it yet. Big tech punishes anyone who dares to try these gimmicks harshly. Yu cannot afford to take the risk.