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Delivery riders: Danger of so-called First World citizens stuck with Third World work

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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I know of a former remisier who became a security guard four years ago after his old job vanished into oblivion. His wife and even his daughter disapproved of his switch for status reason. They stayed in a condominium and they thought they would not know how to explain to their neighbours where he was working. The 45-year-old was not penniless, but he needed to have a regular salary. He ignored their objections. About $2,750 a month might not be anywhere near the $15,000-$25,000 he once regularly took home working at a stockbroking firm in Shenton Way. It was still way better than nothing. He could not be just relying on his savings to survive. He had to take care of himself. 

Many of those Singaporeans now doing food delivery probably faced a similar family-worrying danger of having a normal life, with some even staring at an existential threat of survival, when Covid-19 struck.

Quite a number of people from all walks of life became food delivery riders here because they also lost their old jobs and had mouths to feed, including their own. There was the story of a talented conductor who used to conduct orchestras in Europe. He turned to food delivery when the pandemic hit Singapore around January 2020. He was stuck here and turned to being delivery rider once the lockdown was eased. Jobless PMETs also took to motorbikes and scooters to earn a living. 

The Straits Times reported in Nov 2021: 

“The magnitude of employment losses in Singapore during the Covid-19 pandemic was unprecedented, more than in any other crisis, according to a report released by the Ministry of Trade and Industry on Wednesday (Nov 24)…By the third quarter of this year, the total number of people employed in Singapore had dropped by a cumulative 196,400. Of this number, 113,500 jobs were lost during the circuit breaker period in the second quarter of last year (2020).

“The pandemic thus surpassed the peak-to-trough employment declines of other crises, such as the dot-com bust which saw employment drop by 79,500, the Asian financial crisis by 42,100 and the global financial crisis by 13,800.”

Food delivery seems like a heaven-sent opportunity but it is still a relatively new “industry” born out of the necessities of the times, new technology and changing working habits. 

It is an income option where there was none before.

The results of a survey carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies has revealed some of the risks and unknowns of working as a delivery worker. 

I was told by someone who had connections with the industry that it was possible to earn up to $11,000 a month.  Maybe. But the survey of 1,002 workers done by the IPS Social Lab, led by Dr Mathew Mathews, said: “…only seven out of 10 food delivery riders here reported earning a monthly income of less than $3,000 from delivery work, with a median monthly income of $1,925 – less than half the national median monthly salary of $4,680 in 2021.

“Yet roughly four in 10 said they work more than 44 hours a week – the maximum recommended under the Employment Act – while just one in four felt they had enough savings to support themselves and their families in the short term if they stopped working.”

Two points stuck out like sore thumbs from the survey:

  • About a third of food delivery workers here have been in at least one accident that required medical attention, and those who worked longer hours and earned more were more likely to encounter a mishap. About 9.4 cent per cent have been in two such accidents, and 7 per cent said they have been in three or more.
  • The danger that young and physically able locals may become entrenched in the industry and not regard it as temporary. 

IF Singapore is a Third World country where its citizens are struggling for survival, let the food delivery business be. But it is 57 years since independence, what has happened to our education system? All this talk about us being a First World country and a world hub seems so ridiculously out of tune. 

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company. 

Send in your scoops to news@theindependent.sg 

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