2020 was cruel for motorcycle riders. In January, the Lagos government banned okada from major routes in the state, upending years of livelihood for many. Tunde was an okada rider, with a family to feed.
When a friend told him about a gig that was at the time becoming ubiquitous, promising him a partnership with rising tech companies, he bought into it. Thus began his life as a dispatch rider for tech companies that had been most affected by the ban and had pivoted to logistics companies.
On his best days as a delivery rider in Lagos, Tunde gets up when it’s still dark. His wife would have scrambled together breakfast, mostly leftovers from the previous night. There will be no time to clean his hire purchase motorcycle the way he would want to. So what he’ll do is wipe off dew that has settled on it, throw on his helmet and dash out. His children are usually still just getting out of bed when his days start around 7 am.
From his home somewhere after Berger, he has to make his first trip to Yaba. Later he will dash to Ajah or any given destination. Sometimes he declines some. Then make a pickup at maybe other far-flung destinations.
In all of this, he has to contend with the Lagos traffic even on a good day. And, in his line of work, good days are a rarity. These days he has to struggle with getting petrol. And then make sure the delivery is not too late at the same time.
Since the company he works for started doing same-day delivery on virtually every product, the prospect of catching his breath and having a chat with other delivery agents has vanished. Mostly, after making one delivery, the app has another waiting for him.
How does the dispatch industry work?
Curious about the real-life application of same-day delivery models by delivery companies and their impact on key players in the ecosystem has prompted this investigation. And, the highlight of our discovery is that the industry which solely depends on delivery agents to flourish has relegated them to the back seat.
Note: For this report, I spoke with 13 riders. And, the identities of the riders spoken to have been altered to avoid backlash from their employers.
At the top of the hierarchy are delivery riders hired as full-time staff. They get paid salaries. Riders say that this is the dream role because it comes with more benefits. We were told that riders in this cadre use to have a closing time and go out at most three times a day. But that has changed.
Like every other rider, they are always on the move with the pressures of same-day delivery. But it’s still better for them. You won’t work on weekends and could get a salary raise with little hassle. The companies typically pay for the petrol and the airtime used in calling customers.
What is more? It is also a stable job prospect.
Then there are the dispatch riders who work with mostly e-commerce companies but are contractors.
They are paid only for items that are accepted. So it’s possible they make a delivery and not be paid if the recipient rejects the item. They aren’t reimbursed for petrol or airtime costs. All that, they pay out of pocket.
But they don’t leave the neighbourhood they work. So if you work in Yaba, you only make deliveries in Yaba. So, it is sort of better.
These dispatch riders are working with full-time logistics companies. What they do is get riders to sign up. The best way to explain this is that it’s like Uber but for delivery agents. So riders sign up on the app and people log in if they need to make a delivery and order their services.
A feeling of exclusion
Many of the dispatch riders said that they have been working for their current company for at least a year, but they haven’t received any confirmation for a full-time staff role or any form of promotion or increment in salary.
For example, Bernard, who works with a company that sells electronics to customers who pay in instalments said that he has been at the company as delivery personnel for two and a half years. But, he said he is still treated like an outsider at the company. He is not taken along for team bonding which is popular with tech companies. And he doesn’t even have health insurance.
Another rider, Taiwo who also works full-time with a company told me that he isn’t entitled to the breakfast that staff who work inside the company. Yet, he works around the clock and must make deliveries as long as there are deliveries to be made around Lagos.
Taiwo said that the logistic company he has worked with for two years then started the same-day delivery model. Yet, they hired two more riders and paid them the same salary as his.
Yet another, Tunde said that his experience is just as similar. He left one of the logistic companies he was working with full time because he couldn’t see any progress or growth during his time at the company
An aggressive business model
Because it’s presented as gig jobs, the riders who work for full-time delivery companies, are not beholden to accept orders. Much like Uber, they can decline or accept orders as they wish. But the riders said that the companies have put incentives in place that compel them to accept more orders.
For instance, Chinedu said that he gets a bonus after the eighth delivery he makes in a day. For this reason, he said that many of his colleagues make way more than 8 orders in a day to get that bonus. “Some can make more than that eight if there is work. Some people do ten. It can be stressful,” he said.
This model of bonus compels riders to work tirelessly. Some companies give riders bonuses when they get a five-star rating from a customer.
The problem with this model is that it puts quality over quantity and makes sure riders are not overworking themselves to earn a bonus.
The problem of long hours of work
As the hours get longer to meet high demands, riders say that they barely have time to be with their families, even as they make deliveries to mostly young Nigerians in their own homes.
As Taiwo puts it, “This one is work. So there is no time for family.” He said that as long as the office calls him that there is a delivery, he has to make it. Sometimes, he said they call as late as 8 pm.
Even though the app for gig riders shuts down at 9 pm, Tunde said that he has to empty his box before going home or risk being punished by the company.
“Before I always work very late. But due to the safety and what’s happening in this country, I always close earlier,” he said. Ahmed, another gig rider said that he works well into 10 pm. “I work till my app is off,” he said. About security, he said, “We know how to package ourselves because it’s work.”
It’s a sink or swim situation. Either they meet the demands of what one rider describes as a “stressful job” or they are left with no income at all.
So, they keep doing the job.
Insults and emotional pains
The constant debasement and inhumane speech have become emblematic of customers who frequent these apps.
All the riders spoken to said that even though they’ve complained over and over to the companies they work for that some customers can be disrespectful, there have been no tangible actions taken to protect riders from the barrage of insults that customers throw at them.
For instance, Uber rolled out a feature that allows riders rate passengers. the dispatch riders Technext spoke to said they haven’t seen any such feature in the gig apps.
Ahmed said that the app provides them with the needed information only for a single trip. But he said customers will ask him questions that he can’t answer. Once he was making a drop-off and he called the person he picked the parcel from for the location he was headed and he said she raised her voice at him and told him to stop disturbing her line.
“I don’t know the customer. And so I was like calling her to explain where I am going to, what I am picking up,” he said. “She just talked angrily. But I didn’t take it personally because I am working for money.”
Even though he said his company has told riders not to enter customers’ buildings or homes, he said that customers will demand he make doorstep deliveries, sometimes to the fifth floor and if he doesn’t, they report him and he gets punished because the company doesn’t listen to his side of the story.
“We are their customers too,” he said.
Death of professional identity
In the Assistant Professor in the Management and Organization Department at the University of Southern California, Eric Anicich’s essay in the Harvard Business Review, he writes about what he describes as the loss of identity among gig workers. After what he calls an 18-month immersive research project in which he works for some gig companies he has some observations.
“What I observed and experienced,” he writes “was a system that suppresses workers’ uniqueness, experiences, and future aspirations. It was a system that treated people like lines of code to be deployed instead of humans to be developed.”
Anicich’s observation is also true for the riders Technext spoke to.
The death of identity, of personal identity, hits new intakes almost immediately. Outside malls where agents try to catch their breath waiting for an order to be ready, they’ve taken up new identities calling colleagues by the company branding on their boxes.
As a rider who works for Kwik rode by, the other who works for Jumia calls at him “Kwik, where are you coming from?”
They don’t correct each other or exchange names. They just answer and get on with their jobs.
Asking for the bearest minimum
Sunday, who works for an e-commerce company, became a dispatch rider after a more tedious run at an Indian company, which he said: “did not pay.” He rates his experience with this e-commerce company as “at least it’s better than the former one.”
He is placed on a salary and gets some benefits including lunch. On Christmas, he gets some food items and a salary bonus. No healthcare. No promotions. No outright salary increase. But in his line of work, he knows that is the best that he can get. “They do us good,” he said.
Incentives like that and a stable work-life balance, riders we have spoken to said will be a good place for these companies to start.
As Lagos transforms itself into a more modern society, where people seat in their homes and order everything from homemade banana bread to a washing machine, it’s the delivery riders that make it possible. But the industry that they’ve given so much to, has failed to treat them with basic decency.
These micro-aggressions are not just the cons of their work-life that they can ignore. It’s the work-life itself.
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