Every morning, Ren Jiuliang wakes up for another day of racing against time.
The 28-year-old is a food deliveryman in Beijing, where takeout has become the preferred way to eat among white-collar workers.
On-demand delivery is nothing new, with services like Uber Eats and AmazonFresh delivering food and groceries right to people’s doorsteps.
But in China, it’s taken to another level.
Apart from food, people can pay drivers to fetch medicine, run errands, and even deliver personal items left at home. In one extreme case, drug dealers were caught using personal errand companies to deliver their products.
Every day, hundreds of millions of people in China use apps to order food and other delivery services. Out of the country’s 570 million online payment users, almost half have ordered food online, according to one government report.
(Read more: Addicted to delivery in Beijing)
But who are these people powering China’s $67 billion food delivery industry?
Most of them are migrant workers who left small towns and farms in poorer parts of the country to find jobs in big cities.
Ren is from Hongtong County, a small town about 450 miles away from Beijing, but he’s been living in the capital for the past three years.
The soft-spoken driver works for Meituan, one of China’s largest food delivery companies, and tackles about 40 to 50 orders a day. The orders come in through his phone, and during the lunch hour, he might take up to six at a time.
He gets paid about $1.50 per delivery at peak hours, but if he’s late, that gets cut in half.
“I feel like a string being stretched to the extreme.”
“I often feel very nervous,” Ren says. “Every day when I ride, I feel like a string being stretched to the extreme.”
The rush against time means drivers can sometimes be reckless, something that Ren admits to.
He says he’s already crashed two bikes and shows the scratches and bruises on his arms to prove it. A small spot of dried blood is clearly visible on his bright yellow uniform.
“I have injuries all over my body,” Ren says. “On my legs, too. It’s very common.”
Despite the stress, many drivers feel the job is preferable to the monotony of factory work, and the pay is often better than other service jobs such as waiting tables.
Ren takes home about $1,100 per month, nearly three times what he could make in his hometown.
“Back home, there are few options to make a living,” Ren says, adding that a lot of young people end up driving trucks at coal mines.
Over 70% of Meituan’s 2.7 million drivers come from rural parts of China, and in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, that figure is 97%, according to the company.
Many drivers divide their time between their hometowns and the cities where they work. Ren and his wife, who lives with him in Beijing, go back to Hongtong twice a year to see their son, who is being raised by his grandmother.
“You can’t just be a deliveryman forever.”
“They earn their living per delivery, and the work is unstable and informal,” says Liu Kaiming, executive director of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, which advocates for labor rights. “A lot of them are not locals, so they will spend some time at home. Once they stop working, they stop earning.”
Ren does not see himself living in Beijing for the long run. His hope is to make enough money so that he can go back to his hometown and start a small business there.
“You can’t just be a deliveryman forever,” he says.