Inside the life of a Dubai delivery driver

More than 15,000 delivery drivers are risking their lives on Dubai’s roads every day as they work up to 18 hours a day for as little as 7.5 dirhams ($2) per drop.

 A view of the Dubai waterfront (photo credit: CHARLES GREEN)
A view of the Dubai waterfront
(photo credit: CHARLES GREEN)

Weaving in and out of traffic across the United Arab Emirates, they are a common and colorful sight on Dubai’s roads.

But more than 15,000 delivery drivers are risking their lives on Dubai’s roads every day as they work up to 18 hours a day for as little as 7.5 dirhams ($2) per drop.

To protest their meager salaries and poor conditions, the foreign food-delivery workers for the major Talabat delivery service walked off the job across Dubai on Tuesday, in a strike that caused "operational delays" organized on social media. It is a rare action in country a where strikes are illegal.  The strike comes a week after a successful strike by workers for the large Deliveroo food delivery company.

While delivery companies – who hire thousands of drivers from third-party contractors – insist they are doing their bit to keep riders safe, an investigation by a campaigner hoping to change the working conditions of the courier riders unveiled the reality of life on the road.

Delivery drivers – faced with paying for their own fuel and pushed to squeeze in as many drops as they can during their shifts – and road safety experts have also detailed the dangers riders face when they are overworked and underpaid.

 FOOD DELIVERY services offer a new level of simplicity for the customer.  (credit: WOLT) FOOD DELIVERY services offer a new level of simplicity for the customer. (credit: WOLT)

“People see them as ‘wasps’ on the road,” said British businessman Adam Ridgway, founder of OneMoto in Dubai’s Sustainable City, who went undercover as a delivery driver to see firsthand their day-to-day work life.

And yet, an 18-month research project into the pay and condition of delivery drivers conducted by Ridgway found “most” companies had a pay system in which drivers would get paid 7.5 dirhams ($2) a drop, many drivers were offered incentives to work longer hours and reach a monthly target of 500 drops to get a small bonus, and the vast majority would work 12 hours a day.

During his investigation, he found one company even boasted that some of its drivers would work up to 18 hours a day and make up to 1,000 drops a month in a bid to send money to families back home.

Ridgway uncovered the conditions delivery drivers worked under after he sold his media company two years ago and invested in making and distributing electric bikes believing they would be a safer and more environmentally friendly alternative to the gasoline-powered bikes delivery drivers use.

What followed was an 18-month project to understand how fleet hire companies and what he calls the aggregators – companies such as Talabat and Deliveroo who subcontract the drivers – work, collating data firsthand from a multitude of companies.

Ridgway found that there were 15,000 gasoline-powered delivery bikes on the road in Dubai alone. He also uncovered the different models in which delivery drivers are paid.

While Ridgway declined to name individual company pay structures, he said at “one of the big companies,” the riders pay 950 dirhams ($260) a month to lease their bikes, plus pay a commission to the people or the delivery company that employs them, a fee to the company that sponsors them for a visa as well as repay their visa costs, and pay for their own medical expenses. They also pay for their own fuel.

Together, that averages out to 1,500 dirhams to 2,000 dirhams ($410 to $540) a month, said Ridgeway, which they pay out of a roughly 3,500-dirham ($950) a month salary.

With delivery drivers working an average six-day work week and 12 hours a day, that can work out as little as a 50-dirham ($14) a day wage.

Other companies had different pay structures.

Many firms who shared their balance sheets with Ridgway were paying their delivery drivers 7.5 dirhams ($2) for a single delivery drop.

Referring to the common colors associated with different delivery companies, Ridgway said: “A lot of them operate that way – there is quite a lot of them, the orange ones, (aggregators) the green ones, the teal ones, this is common knowledge. This is pretty standard. The drivers get paid 7.5 dirhams ($2) a delivery.”

The drivers are then incentivized by volume deliveries, such as an extra 250-dirham ($70) bonus for exceeding 500 deliveries per month.

With drivers often having to pay their own fuel – which can be as much as 6,000 dirhams ($1,600) a year, said Ridgway – this was an incentive many tried to attain to earn extra cash.

Under one company – which Ridgway refused to name but said was a large-scale fleet operator – drivers were working the equivalent of almost two-and-a-half working days in a single day.

“The company was quite proud. They said their drivers – not all of them but many of them – had done 1,000 deliveries a month and were working 18 hours a day.”

Wanting to uncover some of the tribulations delivery riders go through, Ridgway took to the roads for a week to understand first-hand the real life of a delivery rider.

“At first, they were hesitant. But when they realized I was just being a delivery driver too, they opened up. My takeaway was these frail-looking guys sent their 900 to 1,800 dirhams back to their families each month with ‘disappointed acceptance,’” he said.

“None of these drivers felt respected. Also, no one had a name. They worked in a silo and it is a very lonely place being on a motorbike," he said, adding: “They have no human connection. Some guys were in tears. All they wanted to do was provide for their families.”

Ridgway found that some companies had begun to pay delivery drivers a daily per diem of 10 dirhams ($2.70) for food and water to encourage rest and hydration, following a spike in accidents involving the overworked drivers.

However, often delivery drivers used this toward filling up their own tanks given they had to pay for gas and the cost of fuel was going up.

It also meant they wanted to spend more time on the roads and avoid “downtime” – resulting in a reluctance to get bikes serviced, leaving many bikes un-roadworthy.

Some drivers were illegally moonlighting for a second company to build their wages and lived in fear of being found out.

“It is so upsetting to say but there was absolutely nothing positive that came out of these drivers’ mouths,” said Ridgway. “One said he hated his life. He didn’t see a way out; it was so harrowing.”

One delivery driver for food delivery service Talabat spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity. He said that he worked up to 12 hours a day, making between 500 to 600 drops a month. Another Talabat driver confirmed he got paid for delivery, at 7.50 dirhams ($2) a drop.

The UAE’s largest food delivery fleet is Talabat.

The company insists it has unveiled a number of schemes to not only ensure its drivers work in safe conditions and are not overworked – but have access to reward and bonus schemes to add to their pay packet.

Over the seven emirates in the UAE, Talabat hires some 15,000 drivers across its huge network; this number has risen from just 800 five years ago after the pandemic pushed millions of people indoors and accelerated a surge in app-based orders.

A spokesperson for Talabat said it employs its drivers through third-party logistics (or 3PL) companies, of which it has 30 on their books.

They told The Media Line that it is the 3PLs who are in charge of sponsoring and paying the delivery drivers they hire, but admitted that the drivers did get paid per drop and they were responsible for paying for their own fuel.

Food delivery aggregator Delivery Hero, parent company of Talabat, reported a hugely profitable first quarter in 2020, with revenues up 92% year on year worldwide, according to its own report, reaching a total revenue of €515 million (2.07 billion dirhams) in Q1 2020.

In 2019, Delivery Hero made €1.238 billion. This equated to 582,340 dirhams ($158,546) per hour.

In comparison, if a driver did three drops an hour, he would earn just 22 dirhams ($6).

Talabat would not disclose how many drops a driver would do during a shift – saying this was sensitive information – but said it encouraged all drivers under its network to work no longer than a nine-hour shift in a day.

“Our riders are at the heart of everything we do as a business – they play an integral role in the success of Talabat,” said Tatiana Rahal, managing director of the UAE operations. “We are proud to have been able to launch several initiatives in 2022 including the rider-app update that follows riders to have full visibility on tips they receive in real-time. In addition, we launched rider salary cards, allowing them to have complete transparency on their finances.”

“Our goal is to ultimately empower our riders, improve their working conditions and earning potential, as well as give them recognition for their hard work and dedication while keeping their safety at heart.”

The company said it holds biweekly rider focus groups, held more than 25 road safety sessions in 2021, offers flexible working hours, and has ensured that 99% of riders had switched from bags to solid LED boxes for additional safety.

In April 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when delivery demand was booming but the roads were deserted, 12 delivery drivers died in Dubai during COVID-19 nighttime movement restrictions.

Captain Salem Al Amimi, of Dubai Police, said at the time there was “no excuse” for these deaths as the roads were empty, adding the desire for profits had eclipsed safety as delivery companies put too much pressure on drivers when demand for orders surged.

“When money comes into the equation, safety is put aside. The companies were under huge pressure as orders were coming in 24/7. They were pushing drivers to make deliveries, but they couldn’t handle it,” he said. “It is important that the bikes are maintained, and riders are not pushing their lives to the limit.”

Thomas Edelman, of Road Safety UAE, told The Media Line that motorcycle delivery safety is a big concern in the UAE.

“Each day, thousands of deliverymen across the country cope with life-threatening work-related risks, and the number of deliverymen is growing by the day,” he said. “The pressures of the job are constant: dangerous encounters with motorists and long hours in return for wages and occasional tips.”

“Restaurants know that delivering orders quickly is a good way to expand business. Even though some restaurants and shops don’t set strict time limits for deliveries, these men know that they have to be quick. This pressure – and the fear of getting scolded by their employers – can make them literally zigzag through traffic, risking their lives and those of others.”

However, some delivery companies are prioritizing the safety of their drivers.

“We are not going to let someone die for a pizza.”

One UAE company is striving to treat delivery drivers differently.

Ian Ohan, chief executive of Krush Brands and UAE pizza delivery company Freedom Pizza, said the firm employs all its 150 drivers directly, rather than use a third-party contractor like most delivery services, pays monthly salaries (3,000 dirhams) and pays for all visa, medical and fuel costs and well as a promised pay rise every year.

“Most companies use ‘driver pools,’ in effect, which absolves them for being responsible for their drivers,” he said. “But if you outsource someone has to bear that cost and often it ends up being the drivers.”

At Freedom Pizza, there is no wage cap on what they pay drivers, who can earn bonuses for their time in the company and the feedback they get, they also have opportunities for career growth, with many going on to be trained as managers.

All drivers are also given proper safety gear and riding attire, unlike, said Ohan, “some of the drivers from other companies who wear dress shoes or trainers.”

“They get tips and salaries; they are not incentivized to drive quickly. Any bad weather and we close for deliveries," he said. “We are not going to let someone die for a pizza.”

Asked how he felt about how other companies treat their drivers, Ohan said: “Other companies they make them pay for their visa, their own fuel. Drivers are just a commodity.”

“I would like to see them what they report to be doing – which is care about drivers – not just pretend to.”