On Tuesday, April 20, 50 food delivery drivers congregated outside the Ministry of Labor in Taipei, their branded delivery bags in tow, displaying the names and logos of Uber Eats, Foodpanda, Lalamove, and other major platforms.

Days before, Uber Eats and Foodpanda, which together make up about two thirds of the country’s platform-based food delivery market, had changed the way that they determine their workers’ pay. Drivers said the move reduced their wages by up to 30%. It isn’t the first time the companies have changed their terms, but this time felt like a watershed. “In the early days,” said Patrick Su, a veteran delivery driver for Uber Eats and Foodpanda who attended the meeting at the Ministry of Labor. “Those who were willing to work hard were still making a lot of money.” 

But successive cuts have undermined drivers’ ability to make a living, particularly in the southern and central regions of the country. “Many delivery workers in these regions are clearly getting paid below the minimum hourly wage,” Su said.

Falling wages, two fatal accidents involving delivery riders, and the government’s halfhearted attempts to regulate platform companies have pushed some workers — the 50 or so who attended the protest in April — to call for a national union of delivery drivers. They face an uphill battle. Taiwan’s labor laws mean they will have to build a broad coalition of other unions and workers’ groups before they can get national recognition. If they can do that, they’ll then have to convince the Taiwanese government to close the regulatory loopholes that have allowed the companies to dodge scrutiny and labor rules.

“Most of the delivery workers do not know how to improve their labor conditions, but there is actually a solution,” said Su. “The Taiwanese government holds quite a lot of power to determine labor welfare-related issues.”

In 2019, around 80,000 people worked as delivery drivers in Taiwan, according to the Ministry of Labor. Two companies, Foodpanda and Uber Eats, dominate the market, operating in more than a dozen cities across the country. Roughly half of all internet users in Taiwan use food delivery services. The pandemic has accelerated the trend. By the end of 2020, the number of drivers had jumped to 88,000. That has tracked a fall in the number of regular jobs available in the country. In 2020, Taiwan recorded its highest level of unemployment in four years. 

Regulation has been slow to keep up with the speed that the delivery industry has developed, and the two largest companies have inordinate influence over the lives and working conditions of their drivers, whom they continue to designate as contract workers, not full-time employees. This has often left workers feeling powerless. 

“We don’t have any bargaining mechanism with Uber Eats,” said Mickey Liu, a delivery driver who works part-time for UberEats. Liu believes collective action, like striking, won’t have any impact “because there will always be drivers willing to work.”

Brent Lewin/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Taiwanese government was initially wary of gig work platforms and cracked down on Uber when it entered the Taiwanese market, fining the company for operating a transportation company without proper permits. In 2017, Uber suspended ride-hailing services in Taiwan after racking up $10 million in fines. Uber Eats was also faced with similar fines for operating illegally in Taiwan but managed to avoid paying them. Few of the country’s early attempts at regulation focused on the welfare of workers.

That seemed likely to change when, in October 2019, two on-duty delivery drivers, working for Foodpanda and Uber Eats respectively, were killed in fatal accidents within three days of one another. Their deaths made national headlines and spurred a Ministry of Labor investigation into the relationship between the delivery platforms and their drivers.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor eventually concluded that drivers were indeed employees, not contractors, and that Foodpanda and Uber Eats were responsible for their safety. The government required the platforms to offer drivers up to around $65,000 in accident insurance. UberEats and Foodpanda filed an administrative lawsuit against the government, challenging the ruling. No ruling has yet been made on the case. Last year, Taiwanese news outlet Sina reported that Foodpanda had even threatened to fine drivers who claimed to be employees rather than contractors.

The three drivers who spoke to Rest of World said that these new basic regulations did lead to some small improvements in working conditions. However, experts said that the rules left too many loopholes for the platforms to exploit. 

“I think the Department of Labor kind of dodged the issue in 2019,” said Yachi Chiang, an associate professor of law at National Taipei University of Technology who studies the gig economy.

For example, the regulations set out a range of criteria that determine whether a driver is a contractor or employee, such as whether the company requires the worker to wear a uniform or whether the platform’s logo is on the delivery cases. “None of these touched the fundamental issue,” said Chiang. “So it is very easy for these companies to then change the contract and say, ‘OK, now we don’t ask our drivers to carry the logo, and we don’t ask them to wear uniforms.’”

Chiang said that any laws that fail to take into consideration the way algorithms and data — not humans — manage the drivers would be incomplete. “I think that’s actually the fundamental question about how to regulate the gig economy,” she said. “How do we evaluate the power of data?” As long as regulators are looking for surface indicators of employment, like uniforms or even contracts, they will struggle to define dependency — whether the driver is truly subordinate to the company — without understanding the way that the data and algorithms dictate the drivers’ work, she said.

Su, the organizer, alleged that Uber Eats had tried to evade stricter regulations by establishing their headquarters outside of the capital. Taipei City imposed new rules on providing drivers with insurance in April 2020. Under a quirk of local law, a company established in the capital has to apply its rules nationwide, meaning that Uber Eats would have had to comply with the stricter regulations across the country. Public records show that UberEats (which had previously not had an official headquarters in Taiwan) subsequently applied to set up its headquarters in New Taipei City, on the outskirts of Taipei.

Neither Foodpanda nor Uber Eats responded to Rest of World’s request for comment. 

Su knows this will be a challenging process, but he believes that only a national union would be able to get drivers a seat at the table.

Building a nationwide union is complicated in Taiwan. During four decades of martial law, which ended only in 1987, there was just one labor union in the country. The second, the Taiwan Confederation of Trade Unions, was recognized in only 2000. Teachers won the right to join unions in only 2010.

There are already several local unions for delivery drivers in cities and counties across Taiwan, but their power is limited. To build a national union, Su and his colleagues need to show that there are local industrial unions in more than half of Taiwan’s 22 municipalities. Then, more than half of these unions would need to join the national union. Alternatively, they can set up a federation of trade unions, which means meeting a similarly high threshold — recruiting half of the total industrial and occupational unions in the country and signing up unions in more than half of the municipalities.

Su knows this will be a challenging process, but he believes that only a national union would be able to get drivers a seat at the table in shaping regulations. He and his colleagues want the kind of protections that gig economy workers in the European Union have achieved and the creation of a new official category of labor, which would fall somewhere between a full-time employee and a freelance contractor.

“With this kind of protection, delivery workers can enjoy some basic protection and also have more flexible working hours,” he said. “Other types of jobs can’t offer these conditions. We still hope that the special law can be passed.”