Delivery driver deaths: lifting the lid on the dark side of the gig economy

Naaman Zhou’s reports on the exploitation of Australia’s food delivery riders won him the 2021 Walkley Award for Public Service Journalism.

Former Guardian Australia reporter, Naaman Zhou, won the 2021 Walkley Award for Public Service Journalism.

When Doordash delivery driver Chow Khai Shien was killed in a car accident, he became the third person in Australia to die while delivering food during the pandemic. By the end of the year, five delivery riders had died between September and November 2020, an average of one death every two weeks.

Former Guardian Australia journalist Naaman Zhou, who has been reporting on the gig economy since 2017, engaged with the drivers’ grieving families in their own language and. connected Chow’s story to the deaths of the four other delivery drivers.

In a series of two news reports and the feature article “Australia’s delivery deaths: the riders who never made it and the families left behind”, Zhou revealed unreported details about the workers’ lives and the inner workings of the gig economy. The reports revealed the human cost of food delivery and earned Zhou his first Walkley Award.

Zhou discusses lifting the lid on the food delivery industry and the impact his reporting series had on industry conditions with 2021 Jacoby Walkley Scholarship-winner, Ella McCrindle.

The category for public service journalism is such an important one. You must be over the moon.

You’re exactly right. It really is an important category. I remember reading the previous winners’ work — Nina Funnell and the LetUsSpeak campaign, Anne Connolly on aged care, Louise Milligan and “I Am That Girl” — and it was some of the most amazing journalism I’d ever read. I’m really pleased and honestly very surprised that I’ve won, but it’s a huge honour.

My girlfriend called me at about 3am telling me that I won [Zhou is now based in the US and couldn’t attend the awards in Sydney] and for a long time I think neither of us was ready to believe it. I woke up to amazing messages from some of my beloved friends and colleagues, telling me I’d won and to wake up.

While I was really sad not to be [at the ceremony] I really treasure those messages and that experience.

You must have known that there was something that made this body of work special. What made you think it could be a winner?

In the guidelines of the award there’s a phrase about giving a voice to the voiceless. I think that it’s a thread that runs through the previous years’ winners.

Something I have realised is that different communities are less willing to talk. People who are born in Australia, grew up here, read the news here, they understand the media more, and they are willing to talk. [Whereas in migrant communities], even if horrible things happen to people, sometimes they just don’t want to talk about it, they want to keep their head down. The workforce of delivery riders are migrants. They are people who think, perhaps, they will only do it for a short time.

If you order food it doesn’t matter to you as a consumer whether the person on the receiving end is a contractor or an employee. It doesn’t really make a difference. It doesn’t matter to you, for example, if they don’t receive a certain amount of insurance if they are injured or they die.

The person it matters to is the worker or the family of that worker.

It’s really important to produce journalism that exposes the systemic issues which could very easily be reformed and have tremendous impacts on people, that just aren’t noticed by others. I think that’s common between the previous winners and this story.

How did you discover this story?

One of my editors at the Guardian put me onto it. They spotted that it was a really interesting industry which had a lot of issues. I’ve actually been reporting on the gig economy since 2017. I wrote a feature in 2018 headlined, Accidents, stress and uncertainty: food delivery riders lift lid on working conditions.

It is sad really that in many ways, we’re still talking about the exact same issue. This story is so similar to one from nearly four years ago.

During the pandemic, two factors changed the story. The first was the rise in the amount of food being delivered to consumers. All of a sudden, delivered food was essentially the only legal way to get food.

All these people then became essential workers. At the same time, the closure of many other industries pushed a lot of people into this work.

I remember thinking after the first three deaths that I wanted to write something that was summative about this, that put all these stories in one place.

What was the process of getting these stories out?

I reported on the first two deaths of food delivery workers in November 2020 the story was first broken by the Sydney Morning Herald. Then a few weeks later, I covered a third death.

The main story that won this award was my feature, Australia’s delivery deaths: the riders who never made it and the families left behind published in late November 2020, and I actually wrote that feature during the longest period between the deaths.

A large part of the feature was audio-led, a collaboration with The Guardian’s Daily News Podcast Team, Full Story. I interviewed Chow Khai Sing and recorded it and we turned it into a podcast episode.

It was very much about giving someone who isn’t used to giving interviews the time to share their stories in a verbatim audio format. It was a conversation, quite open between me and her.

That formed the basis for the audio feature in the interview. It’s actually the exact same interview.

I wrote this feature over a couple of weeks and then I filed it on a Thursday or Friday. We finished it and scheduled it for Saturday or Sunday at 6am.

It really was the worst and most unfortunate timing. The day it came out, about three or four hours later, it was reported that another person died. Then another four or five people died in the next few weeks.

Tell me about some of the changes you saw after publishing the stories?

The NSW Parliament very swiftly set up a committee to look into it, three days after my feature was published.

Uber improved the insurance that they offered their riders. Menulog, which is one of the competitors [of Doordash and Uber], announced they intend to have all contractors be considered employees within a few years.

In late February, the NSW Coroner said it would consider an inquest into four deaths that happened in Sydney.

But I guess the reality is that the law has not changed and that’s an important point to make.

What was the significance of speaking to the families in their own languages?

It was really significant.

I interviewed Lihong Wei, who was the widow of Xiaojun Chen. I also interviewed (in English) Chow Khai Sing, the sister of Chow Khai Shien, who died in Melbourne.

These are people who have never spoken to the media or a journalist in their lives. They’re the kind of people who are less willing to talk to journalists, compared to people who grew up here, are native English speakers, and engage with the media more regularly.

[The bereaved family members] were speaking to a journalist in the most horrible circumstances of all, in that a loved one had died suddenly in a foreign country. I think any of us would find it too horrible to have to talk through an interpreter in this situation. It’s a privilege that if we speak English, we’ll almost never have to.

A few eagle-eyed readers might notice that at the bottom of the main feature, my mother is credited for additional reporting.

I speak a bit of Mandarin but not that well, so my mother helped me with some of the translations and interviews with Lihong Wei. She also helped me communicate with her and build trust with her. I was not the only person to talk to Lihong Wei, but I think I was the person who spoke to her the longest and got the most detail from her, because I wasn’t talking to her through an interpreter.

One of the saddest and most important details in my piece was that Lihong was trying to save money in Australia. She was only eating instant noodles in the hotel because the food was so much more expensive here than in her town in China.

She actually told me in Chinese in the lift as I was leaving. She told me incidentally. I think it’s not necessarily the sort of thing you’d think to tell to an interpreter to then tell to someone else

I think it has to be said — This is a clear example of why having reporters from different backgrounds, languages and skill sets makes the quality of Australian journalism better, and makes reporting more detailed and rigorous.

It’s clearly vital that we diversify the journalism industry as you point out. How do you think that’s best achieved?

It’s such a tough question. I think this issue has two sides.

There’s what people would term the “pipeline problem,” which is the number of people from diverse backgrounds who want to or are able to get into journalism, or more importantly, think they are able to get into journalism.

Then there’s the issue of hiring that organisations are in charge of when the applicants come to them. There’s a perception sometimes that hiring people who have less experience, which often means they come from diverse backgrounds, are more risky.

The reality is that there can be vast improvements on both sides.

I think one definite way it can be improved is for people to see journalists who look like them or sound like them in the media they consume; to think it’s possible to get a job.

What did this story mean to the families who lost their loved ones? What did it mean for all Australians?

The families were really grateful, which actually breaks my heart. As journalists, we get used to people who are adept at talking, or willing to talk, but it was clearly the first time these people had ever spoken to a journalist. Sadly, a common thread in these deaths is that the families don’t know that their loved one has died for a few days. It was important for them to have recognition and know that people cared.

Australians actually do have a very strong idea of fairness. I wasn’t certain at all that people would care. There are other countries both now and historically where the attitude has been that this is the cost of doing business.

I myself was very overwhelmed and grateful for the response of readers and my peers to the stories.

This was something that Lihong Wei told me in our interview. She told me one of the reasons her husband came to Australia was that he knew it to be a “rule of law country,” which I think is true.

We do care. I think Australians do care that people could die doing work that we requested, I think it’s an important part of why these stories have hit a nerve.

What’s your message to Australians about why quality journalism needs their support?

This story is a perfect example of how quality journalism can tell the human stories of people that you otherwise wouldn’t have heard.

These companies, at every step of the way, were telling these families not to tell too much and were sharing as little as possible.

If you read some of my stories, you’ll see how often a spokesperson for Uber or Deliveroo didn’t respond to questions.

Some of the workers who died, we don’t even know their names. Uber refused to release one worker’s name [at the time of the person’s death]. They just said they were continuing to provide the family with support.

Imagine if that happened to a white Australian or someone who grew up here. That is unthinkable. We would know their name, their family would start a petition, they would write to their MP, they would find a way to get their story to the media, as they should. That simply has never happened for this person’s family.

There are thousands of gig workers in Australia. You see them on the street every day and yet people know very little about how the industry works. They know very little about what the app would ask you to do or what the app would look like as a worker. That is inescapably due to the fact that they are migrants. If this many Australian-born workers were doing these jobs, we would know the intricacies of how it works.

And in this sort of case, it is quality journalism’s job to find out and tell people.

Naaman Zhou is a reporter and journalist. He is currently a copy editor at The New Yorker, and was a reporter at the Guardian Australia from 2016 to 2021. He was a Judith Neilson Asia Reporting Fellow in 2020.

Read the full list of 2021 Walkley Award winners here.

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