JOHANNESBURG/BERLIN: More than a year after Malawian driver Matthew was hit by a car while delivering food on his motorbike in South Africa, he lives with a shooting pain in his foot and fears for his life every time he hits the road.
His injuries, including a broken toe and various cuts, left him unable to work for a month, but the company he was riding for – Uber Eats – told him he did not qualify for compensation as he was in hospital for less than 48 hours.
“I felt totally abandoned,” Matthew – who asked not to use his real name for fear of retaliation – told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his home in Pretoria.
Yet he still delivers food for the company, having few other options for work, one of an estimated hundreds of drivers – most of whom are migrant workers – facing road accidents in the past year trying to make a living during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Figures obtained exclusively by the Thomson Reuters Foundation showed a 30% jump in road accidents involving food couriers in May and June last year as South Africa eased its lockdown.
There are no official numbers in South Africa on this expanding workforce but the Motorcycle Safety Institute, a Durban-based research and training organisation, estimates there were at least 6,400 active food delivery drivers in South Africa in 2020, the latest available data.
About 70% of drivers are migrants, according to the institute, while Duane Bernard, an Uber Eats courier who heads up a national, informal drivers union, puts the number at 95%.
Drivers and analysts fear the number of logged accidents was just the tip of the iceberg as many drivers avoid reporting incidents due to their undocumented status in South Africa and concern of losing jobs.
“I have seen drivers die on the road, a lot, and so many injured,” said Matthew, who left Malawi four years ago in search of a better life, adding that many drivers do not report accidents because “it is a waste of time”.
Calls for change
But as the number of accidents rises, increasing numbers of drivers are pushing for a formal, national union to help couriers fight for better working conditions.
“According to the South African law, all workers can form a union and be engaged in collective bargaining... we welcome the creation of sustainable jobs,” said Musa Zondi, acting spokesman for the Department of Employment and Labour.
When asked about Matthew’s experience, a spokeswoman for Uber in sub-Saharan Africa said “like most insurance policies, (our) injury protection has some general and cover-specific exclusions”.
Gig platforms like Uber Eats – where people can pick up work in a flexible manner – are booming in South Africa amid soaring unemployment and many of the workers are migrants trying to raise money to send back to their families.
Drivers say they earn about 8,000 rand (US$533 or RM2,291) per month, which is more than double the monthly minimum wage of about 3,500 rand (RM1,002), according to the labour department.
Martin, 33, a Ugandan driver for Uber Eats, whose friend taught him to ride a motorbike in two weeks, said that “with no legal papers I was getting paid peanuts as a plumber so I switched to delivery”.
But the work comes with its risks, with food couriers saying many drive without training or safety equipment, and with insurance coverage insufficient and poorly-advertised.
Of 27 delivery drivers interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation – all of whom were migrants and involved in accidents – only five knew of any insurance scheme by gig platforms, including one who got compensation for lost income.
Hein Jonker of the Motorcycle Safety Institute said accidents involving food delivery drivers rose 30% nationwide to 109 in May and June 2020 compared to 84 in those months in 2019.
South Africa already had one of the world’s worst road safety records, according to the World Health Organisation, and an influx of drivers during the pandemic added to the risks.
“I was flooded with WhatsApps (messages from drivers). I could see something was going wrong,” said Jonker, who collates accident reports from emergency medical services, local traffic authorities and citizens.
Comprehensive data is scarce and underreported, he added.
WhatsApp groups created by couriers as informal groups to help each other and seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation show photos of smashed motorcycles, dented helmets, and injuries.
Most platforms consider drivers to be independent contractors rather than employees, so drivers pay for their own helmets and bikes, do not qualify for benefits like sick leave and rely on fellow couriers for aid, labour activists said.
Lawyers said a group of South African Uber drivers are to go to court to seek employee rights including compensation for unpaid overtime and holiday pay, hoping for a similar victory to that of British drivers in March.
After the UK court battle, Uber agreed to offer guaranteed entitlements to its more than 70,000 UK drivers, including holiday pay, a pension plan and limited minimum wage.
“There is no one-size-fits-all approach and this conversation will differ from country to country, but we are committed to engaging with local policymakers on this important topic,” Uber said in emailed comments.
Gig economy boom
Uber Eats started operating in South Africa in 2016 and in 2018 introduced Chubb Insurance, a free scheme covering couriers “on-trip” for medical costs, death and disability payments.
Combined with Mr D Food – part of e-commerce firm Take-a-Lot controlled by Africa’s biggest company Naspers Ltd – Uber has about 80%-90% of the food delivery market, according to the latest data from research firm Insight Survey.
Uber said Covid-19 had forced the company to halt in-person safety presentations and temporarily close support centres, so safety tips, emergency buttons and information on injury claims were sent out to drivers by email and in-app messaging.
The spokeswoman added the company has a “stringent onboarding process” for new delivery drivers and inspects all vehicles registered on the app.
A spokeswoman for South African call-and-deliver service Mr D Food declined to comment. The company does not mention training or insurance policies on its website.
Checkers Sixty60, a local grocery delivery that surged in lockdown, said the company has trained 670 drivers and couriers receive insurance if they lease a motorbike from the company.
Most delivery platforms recruit heavily from migrant communities, according to delivery drivers and former employees.
In a rundown neighbourhood in west Johannesburg, a courier commune of sorts is located behind a car wash, where about 40 drivers from Tanzania, Malawi and Uganda live in crowded rooms packed with bunk beds.
Having fled economic and political strife at home, many now live undocumented or awaiting outcomes of asylum applications.
Of the 27 drivers interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, five undocumented couriers said they shared ride-hailing accounts and ID papers as there was no other work.
Martin, who walks with crutches after breaking his femur in an accident last year, said couriers “don’t bother to ask for help because we have heard that drivers don’t get a penny, or their apps are turned off and take ages to get turned on again”.
Uber said “we do not deactivate couriers on a whim, we adhere to strict community guidelines, which act as a ‘how-to’ for both driver-partners and riders”.
Bernard, who runs the informal trade union from the city of Port Elizabeth, said language barriers and poor “on-the-ground communication” from companies hold many migrant drivers back from making insurance claims.
The Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC), a government road safety partnership, said it noted a “general lawlessness” by motorcyclists, adding it promotes responsible driving in schools and deploys traffic police to tackle reckless driving.
As independent contractors, delivery couriers do not typically have access to the Compensation Fund – a state scheme funded by employers that provides compensation for occupational injuries and diseases – said Tzvi Brivik, a South African lawyer specialising in such claims.
Under Uber’s Chubb insurance scheme, drivers and their families can receive up to 200,000 rand (US$13,500 or RM57,291) compensation in case of death or total disability, its website states.
But the policy falls short of the coverage provided for a typical employee, Brivik said, as it caps medical coverage to 180 days, and requires drivers to spend 48 hours in a hospital before qualifying for lost wages.
Chubb, the US insurance provider managing the scheme, said it could not comment due to “confidentiality provisions”.
To report an accident resulting in a knee injury to Checkers Sixty60, Burundian driver John – not his real name – said he had to drive to Boksburg, 60km (37 miles) from Pretoria, in agonising pain with his leg suspended off one side of the bike.
He received a payout from Checkers Sixty60 of 5,200 rand (RM1,489) for one month of lost salary, but said this was not enough to cover his medical costs.
Checkers Sixty60 said it was following up on John’s case and could not comment at this point.
Martin did not pursue financial compensation as he did not think the process would yield any results.
“I don’t regret driving because it helps me put food on the table,” said Martin, pointing to scars on his face and body. “But we need policies that can protect us as drivers so that we are not afraid to say we need help.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation