Graphic: spf.pdf for Lausan

Foodpanda strike: Neighborhood groups, translators, YouTubers—in the post-unions era, how do workers organize?

Food delivery rider labor action post-NSL is encouraging but its broader impact remains to be seen.

Original: 【Foodpanda 罷工】地區 group、翻譯組、YouTube 後工會時代 一場工運是如何誕生?

Authors: 陳萃屏 and 何逸蓓

Translators: Grilled Saury, tfe, WF

Editor’s note: On the November 13, riders working for food delivery company Foodpanda in Hong Kong went on strike over cuts to delivery fees, racist and exploitative working conditions, arbitrary and inaccurate journey distance calculations by the Foodpanda algorithm, and the unresponsiveness of management to prior demands for improvements. On the November 18, the second round of negotiations between strike leaders and Foodpanda management resulted in a settlement, with some of the strike’s demands being met.

Following the imposition of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, numerous civil society groups and unions have pre-emptively disbanded due to fears of being retroactively prosecuted under the NSL for actions committed prior to the law’s promulgation. While numerous “new unions” formed during and after the 2019 anti-Extradition Bill protests, two of Hong Kong’s most prominent union organisations—the Professional Teachers Union and the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions—announced their disbandment and ceased operations.

This translated Stand News report of the Foodpanda strike provides a snapshot of several of the striking couriers’ lives, as well as the labor conditions that led them to organize their co-workers. The strike is significant in that the strikers organised amongst themselves with neither the assistance of HKCTU labor organisers nor the material or financial support of the HKCTU, which had been important resources for workers in previous industrial actions. That the strikers were also able to self-organize in a gig economy industry like food delivery, where there is no workplace for colleagues to mingle and where delivery riders usually embark on journeys alone, only makes their strike all the more impressive. The demographic composition of the Foodpanda delivery riders participating in the strike is also significant. Delivery riders who are Hongkongers of Han Chinese ethnicity stood alongside South Asian migrant workers from India and Pakistan. With their interests as workers and demands against their employer in common, the strikers worked together to bridge racial and linguistic divides.

The framing of the strike as a primarily industrial matter concerned with workers’ livelihoods stands in striking contrast to the highly politicized calls for a general strike against the government during the 2019 protests. The presence of police—Foodpanda management said that they did not call the police—at the strike, and their threat to disperse the assembled strikers via the use of force, cannot be mistaken as anything other than a consequence of the NSL, and the Hong Kong government’s authoritarian assertion of power, in shrinking the space for expressions of protest and dissent in Hong Kong. What this bodes for future industrial actions remains to be seen.

A year after the promulgation of the National Security Law, many civil society organizations have disbanded, including the 31-year old Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, and labor rights continue to be chipped away. At this low point of labor organization, workers with the delivery service Foodpanda have been striking for the past two days against, among other grievances, lowered wages and unfair order cancellation fees. On November 14th, workers forced Pandamart (Foodpanda’s grocery shop) to stop operations. The gathered workers chanted “we are humans, not dogs!”

Stand News interviewed the South Asian delivery drivers organizing this autonomous action, the administrator of the group of South Asian delivery drivers in Kowloon Bay calling for mass participation, as well as the “infantry” (foot couriers) transmitting the workers’ news and demands to Hong Kong social media to understand how, in the post-unions and “big stage” (centralized leadership) era, this workers’ movement came about.

How it all started: a suspended driver’s account

Waqas Fida, a delivery driver of South Asian descent, was initially an anonymous member of the drivers’ group. A couple of days ago, his driver’s Foodpanda account was suddenly suspended. He angrily created a group chat and created a simple graphic: a picture of a middle finger next to a panda’s head. The invitation link to the group spread quickly: “the number of members increased by 200 and 300 at once, and then suddenly several hundred. Now, there are nearly 1500 members in the group.”

Waqas was suddenly thrust into the spotlight—he was happy to be interviewed by the media and said that he wasn’t afraid of retaliation: “it’s okay, I will fight back, I will go to the court, I will do my best what we can for our brothers.”

The bitter sweat and rage of delivery workers

When asked about the reasons for opening the group chat, Waqas spoke for more than ten minutes. During the interview, his colleague Shahzad, whom he had gotten to know through the group, also joined in. Both bitterly reported low wages, harsh working conditions, and difficulties with getting in touch with Foodpanda. 

They have never listened to us

In the past six months, Shahzad’s account had been suspended twice, each for a period of seven days. He only knew that it was the result of customer complaints, but he was provided with no details beyond that. He said, “the company has never asked us what happened, because there was nobody around when we contacted them. They are working from other countries…they never listen to us about our issues.” Waqas and Shahzad reported that the staff working for Foodpanda’s help center were from Malaysia, Pakistan and other countries and were wholly unable to understand their needs. Waqas also added that on the third suspension, one would be permanently barred from working for Foodpanda.

Peak monthly earnings of 40,000 HKD; only 19,000 HKD after

In light of ever-decreasing delivery fees and arbitrary account suspensions, workers had been facing financial pressures. Waqas said that in recent months, more workers had joined the platform and police had given out traffic tickets at an increased rate. In addition, riders had to purchase motorcycles and maintain their vehicles out of their own pocket. While out-of-pocket costs had remained high, salaries had been decreasing. Shahzad shared that at his peak, he could earn up to $40,000 by working 10-12 hour days, seven days a week. However, he only earned $19,000 last month.

Waqas is 28 years old and arrived in Hong Kong 2018 to join his Hong Kong-born wife. They have two children, aged 2 and 1 respectively. Both Shahzad and his wife are Pakistani, and Shahzad was previously working in Saudi Arabia with his family. It was not until 2019 that Shahzad arrived in Hong Kong to join his wife. His son is almost three years old and is starting kindergarten in September. Both are the breadwinners of their family. Since Shahzad’s earnings have reduced, his wife and children have returned to Pakistan in an attempt to reduce expenses. He only hopes that by the time school starts in September next year, he will be able to welcome his wife and children back to Hong Kong.

Regional groups call for more workers to join

On November 13th, approximately fifty workers demonstrated outside Kowloon Bay’s Pandamart. They held signs with the slogans “give us safety,” “no unreasonable suspension anymore,” “we are humans, not dogs.” Most of the workers present were drivers of South Asian descent.

The administrators of the Kowloon Bay Foodpanda message group, Manji and Kam Loong, were responsible for gathering the workers. Twenty people showed up at the entrance of the Pandamart. Cousins Manji and Kam Loong had gotten to know other workers in the district while delivering food, and created a message group to exchange news and tips related to work, such as noting down the restaurants that treated workers poorly. At the time of the strike, the group had seventy members. An internet search revealed that there were many message groups related to Foodpanda, but Kam Loong reckoned that their own message group had enabled them to effectively communicate. For example, members of the Kowloon Bay message group were able to collectively give feedback to Foodpanda about restaurants that were routinely late with orders, as well as restaurants with rude staff, which led workers to refuse to deliver for those restaurants. For this action, Kam Loong got to know Waqas online, who expressed an interest in striking. Kam Loong, in turn, was able to organize Foodpanda drivers, cyclists, and walkers from Pakistan, Hong Kong, and India who were unable to continue accepting the lowered delivery fees.

Cousins Manji and Kam Loong are part of a family of four boys, three of whom work as delivery drivers for Foodpanda, and both send monthly remittances back home. Their parents’ are retired in Pakistan, and they and other relatives are reliant on the cousins’ income earned in Hong Kong. Every month, Manji sends 4000 HKD back home, a sum that is enough to support three to five families with five to six members each. Not wanting to stress their family members out, neither Manji nor Kam Loong have shared their current financial difficulties with their families. 

Manji was thinking about switching jobs, describing construction work as having more worker protections, stating that “even if you get hurt, they will pay you. If you get hurt in Foodpanda, they will not do anything. They just don’t care.” 

Right now, there is no accurate count of the number of food delivery couriers in Hong Kong. We asked Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and Foodpanda about the number of couriers currently working for their platform. Deliveroo reported over 10,000 couriers, UberEats reported approximately 5000 and Foodpanda reported approximately 10,000.

For the striking couriers, all delivery couriers are their friends.

According to data from the Transportation Department, there were 188 traffic incidents involving motorcycle delivery couriers from January to June 2021, with 24 incidents involving serious injuries. In addition, there were 8 severe injuries suffered by bicycle couriers, while records of incidents with slight injuries were not kept.

Hong Kong’s South Asians and Chinese locals connect once again

The breakthrough for the struggle for workers’ rights this time can be attributed to the solidarity between South Asian migrants and Han Chinese locals.

Food courier and organizer Ga Wing (嘉泳) was a vital go-between for the facilitation of communication between locals and South Asians, and was a familiar fixture at the scene of the strike. She was the convenor of the Kowloon City area for this strike action, and could occasionally be seen translating for South Asian delivery riders on scene. Her soft and gentle demeanor belied the breadth and depth of her activist work—she was a member of a non-profit, the “Concern Group for Food Couriers’ Rights”, and had joined the ranks of the “infantry” (foot couriers) since April this year. At the time of the interview, she was pursuing three claims by delivery riders who had suffered work-related injuries on their behalf.

Regarding the links established with South Asian delivery riders during this industrial action, Ga Wing said that the online WhatsApp group for organizing the strike was first set up by her “South Asian older brothers,” who were hoping to get more couriers of Chinese ethnicity to join the strike. They sent out a call to action on the online platform set up by local Foodpanda couriers for a past strike, which was noticed by Ga Wing, who had been one of the organizers. Ga Wing thus took on the mantle of a go-between and forwarded the call to action from the South Asians to other chat groups, gradually amassing support from Han Chinese locals for the strike.

At the same time, the South Asians were handing out leaflets calling for a strike in front of Pandamarts across Hong Kong. Ga Wing remarked at the strong cohesion of the South Asian community—“it’s almost like a hundred people respond when one person calls.” The South Asians also self-organised into strike pickets to persuade other South Asian food couriers and delivery workers to participate in the strike.

“Try your best to gather in groups of four”

In this age of “no big stage” (centralized leadership), Ga Wing shares, “a lot of people are worried about the police, but in the message groups we told people to try their best to gather in groups of four.” Organizers also emphasized peaceful actions. “Yesterday, when we went to the Pandamart in To Kwa Wan, the South Asian organizers told us about the tradition of non-violence and peaceful resistance in India. They felt that this tradition had the power to change things.”

Fighting racism against South Asians

In her two months serving in the “infantry,” Ga Wing said that she had experienced the fullest extent of the oppression and deception inherent to the food delivery gig economy, which she described as a system of “hard labour” that held no regard for human life.

Prior to the strike, Ga Wing was pursuing three cases of work-related injuries. One concerned the death of an Indian Deliveroo courier. The other two cases were about delivery riders, one each from Uber Eats and Foodpanda, who had been hospitalized after being hit by cars. Ga Wing was infuriated by the lacklustre response from the three companies: “Deliveroo only gave us a phone call saying how sorry they felt about the incident.” Uber Eats and Foodpanda still had not contacted the injured riders or their family members.

Ga Wing’s fury was also directed towards the racism suffered by South Asian food couriers. For example, when customers stipulate in their delivery notes that they do not want a South Asian courier, or when customers forcefully slam their doors shut as a way of expressing displeasure upon being couriered by a South Asian. Additionally, no small number of local food couriers perceive their South Asian colleagues as illegal workers who are willing to accept the harshest conditions stipulated by Foodpanda or Deliveroo. Ga Wing considered this industrial action to be a shining indicator of the unity, courage, and willingness of the South Asian community to express their discontent.

Ga Wing added that Foodpanda’s response to the strike this time was “entirely copied and pasted” from their response to a prior strike in July, which indicated its management’s uncompromising approach. Fortunately, she said, “no one is afraid”—perhaps a consequence of everyone being “just too furious this time around; we can no longer acquiesce to being swindled by Foodpanda.”

YouTuber delivery rider questioned by the police

Apart from Ga Wing, Boxson, a motorcycle courier, also spoke up against Foodpanda, declaring in front of a crowd of reporters that “the pay cuts have already crossed our bottomline. We have finally risen up with a fire in our hearts to go on strike!”

Boxson is a YouTuber with a channel dedicated to chronicling his life as a delivery rider. Grinning, he said: “I love to ride motorcycles, so I became a delivery rider. I also like to shoot and produce scary movies, so I decided to document what’s going on in my life while I’m at it.”

Boxson had plenty of grievances, emblematic of the hardships faced by food couriers, that motivated him to join the strike—pay cuts, inaccurate journey distance predictions, “ghost” orders, and unfair treatment by customers and Foodpanda. More importantly, his participation in the strike came from his experiences during the social movement of 2019: “everyone understands that 2019 was an important turning point. I had never experienced anything like it in the past—I was a normal, unassuming kid who grew up in a greenhouse and had never even been in a fight. In the past, I might have resignedly acquiesced to pay cuts, but since 2019, we’ve all learnt about a new way to resist injustice—that is, to go on strike.”

Today, at the nadir of Hong Kong’s union movement and labor struggle, Boxson believed that the reason why Foodpanda workers were able to successfully instigate a strike was because of the eruption of collective rage against the company’s egregious pay cuts. “There only needs to be someone to take the first step, to shout, ‘Hey! Let’s stand up for ourselves!’, and naturally, people will take a stand.” When one person shouts, a hundred will respond.

Unlike previous years, even small gatherings or rumblings are threatening in today’s political environment. Boxson said that he had considered the risks. After coming forward, he had been interrogated by plainclothes police: “I know that you are striking because you want to fight for your rights. That’s okay, but there’s a group gathering limit. You need to tell your colleagues not to gather together.” The next day, he received a call from the Kwun Tong Police Public Relations Branch, asking him, “are you coming out today again?”

However, Boxson was not worried about retaliation from the police. Rather, he just felt that it was “annoying.” In his opinion, this strike was not politically motivated, and as a result, the police were just watching. With regard to the company, Boxson said, “if they wanted to fire me they would have done so already.”

Local organizer KK: holding Foodpanda’s feet to the fire 

KK, an organizer for Kwun Tong delivery workers, originally worked in restaurants but switched over to work as a bicycle courier for Foodpanda due to the workload. On a normal day, he would receive six to seven orders. “Sometimes, the restaurants are really fucking crazy. They tell you to arrive for pickup within 15 minutes, but in reality, when you arrive, they’ve just started preparing the order.” KK said, there had been longstanding vulnerabilities with Foodpanda’s policies. For instance, there was an incident where a restaurant required takeout orders to be canceled via the customer service delivery support system. He said, “customer service is a robot, how can it be canceled?” and the restaurant argued back. He had also experienced a mismatch in order types, “those orders that were meant for motorcycle couriers were assigned to us bicycle couriers, and those that were meant for bicycle couriers were given to foot couriers,” describing the arrangement as a vicious circle.

Because of this, KK decided to participate in the strike activity led by South Asian workers in an attempt to rectify the company’s mistakes. “There have actually been small-scale mobilizations before. In underground groups, we’ve discussed how we can put the company in hot water while keeping ourselves safe.” He also said that he was not worried about being retaliated against. Referencing the previous strike, KK said, “the company definitely knows which workers are outside,” and that “even if I didn’t complain, there would definitely be other workers in my stead.”

Workers are meeting with management on Tuesday.1


  1. Workers met with management and came to an agreement on November 18, 2021. The terms can be found here.