As Dubai’s food delivery booms, dangers and casualties mount
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Running late, the delivery driver threaded his motorcycle around lurching cars, speeding against time and traffic to satisfy a customer’s burger craving — the day’s last delivery in Dubai.
Moments later, a car sideswiped him.
The collision catapulted Mohammed Ifran off his bike and smashed him into the street, instantly killing the 21-year-old as he was delivering a meal worth some $8. After giving up farming in Pakistan, he had been working in Dubai as a contractor for Talabat, an online food delivery app popular in the United Arab Emirates.
“His family’s only source of happiness, gone,” said a fellow courier in the working-class district of Deira, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals.
Ifran’s June death represents just one in a growing number of casualties among food delivery riders in Dubai, workers and advocates say, as the pandemic pushed millions of people indoors and accelerated a surge in app-based orders.The boom has transformed Dubai’s streets and stores and drawn thousands of desperate riders, predominantly Pakistanis, into the high-risk, lightly regulated and sometimes-fatal work. With most paid between $2 to $3 per delivery rather than a fixed salary, riders race in the scorching heat to keep pace with a relentless rush of orders.
The conditions of couriers worldwide, long perilous, worsened during the pandemic as riders became essential to feeding cities and faced new risks of coronavirus exposure. But in Dubai, the United Arab Emirate’s glimmering sheikhdom that runs on low-paid migrant labor from Africa and Asia, the job can be particularly precarious.
At the mercy of visa sponsors, workers in Dubai have few protections. To reduce cost, companies like London-based Deliveroo outsource bikes, logistics and responsibility to contracting agencies — a labor pipeline that prevails across Gulf Arab states and can lead to mistreatment.
“For food delivery riders in the UAE, the issue of exploitation is usually on the part of the sponsor. That’s where people feel they’re unable to change jobs or even to complain about working conditions,” said Karen Young, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
On Dubai’s streets, more than a dozen delivery riders interviewed said they knew of two or three co-workers killed every month. Memories of colleagues sprawled on the street in shredded uniforms and bloodied helmets remain vivid as they mount their bikes each morning, many said.
Dubai police have not yet released a road crash count for 2020. Past tallies did not offer breakdowns for motorcycle deaths. Authorities declined to offer recent figures or comment on crash cases like Ifran’s.
Without an official number, advocates have scoured local media to gauge the work’s hidden toll. One road safety activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, collected press reports of at least 70 delivery riders hospitalized last year in Dubai, including 24 who died.
The figure, although likely an undercount, “is intense” for Dubai during a year that kept most residents off the roads, he said. The entire country recorded 448 crash deaths in 2019.
State-linked Emirati newspaper The National reported that 12 delivery drivers were killed during the city’s lockdown in April alone, quoting a police official as saying, “When money comes into the equation, safety is put aside.”
Couriers in Dubai often lack protective gear and adequate safety training, industry experts said, with riders uneducated about critical motorcycle maneuvers like the blind-spot check. Helmets are often worn incorrectly. Contractors allocate just $27 a month for bike servicing — a small sum for a bike’s necessary oil changes and brake, tire and plug maintenance.